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Automobiles: A Catalyst for International Cultural Exchange and Collaboration

By Source: Published:2015-12-29

[Abstract] Automobiles, one of the greatest inventions of the twentieth century, embody the tremendous power of technology, bear the wisdom and passion of human innovation, and manifest mankind’s perseverance in self-challenge, improvement and actualization. China, an ancient country with a long history, cradles the world's largest auto market today. Promoting independent technology innovations, it is aiming to transform from an auto manufacturer of quantity to one of quality. While the rapid development of the industry nourishes the growth of automobile culture, the Chinese automobile culture is less developed than the industry and systematic researches are lacking. Beijing Auto Museum was founded with a core mission to research and disseminate the automobile culture. The Society of Automotive Engineers of China and China Association of Automotive Manufacturers have important research projects on automobile culture, which have been approved by the government authorities and of which the major tasks are commissioned to Beijing Auto Museum. 2016 marks the fifth anniversary of the founding of the museum, thus a good time for a structured review on the development of automobile culture. Through reviewing the exchange activities and popular science education programs of Beijing Auto Museum since its founding, we explore the ideas of “Automobiles as a Catalyst for Promoting International Cultural Exchange and Collaboration” and propose a plan for future studies.

[Key words] Museum, Automobile Culture, International Exchange

I. The social responsibility of Beijing Auto Museum

(1) The goals and missions of the museum

The development of Beijing Auto Museum can roughly be divided into three stages: building stage, inaugural stage, and operational stage, with a clearly-defined vision to provide “first-class service, top-scale exhibition and top-notch efficiency,” and to establish a value system centering on "legacy, innovation, cooperation, excellence, responsibility" that fosters the pursuit of the culture and civilization continuation, innovation-driven development, multilateral cooperation, service excellence, and social responsibility. The well-defined dual-driven professional mission of cultural dissemination and service support lays the foundation of the administration philosophy, namely, "to build a museum of the society". Beijing Auto Museum strives to become a modern museum that houses vibrant culture and rich content.

People are constrained by nationality while cars are not. The design of the Beijing Auto Museum is to dismantle the boundaries between countries, regions, and brand names. “Cars” are employed as a medium to reflect the incessant exploration of mankind, to narrate the technological advancement, the rapid industry development, the ever-innovated technologies, the changes of lifestyle and ideas brought by the automotive industry in the past century. The museum tries to find the best balance between internationalization and nationalization, and between specialization and popularization. Standing on such a proposition, Beijing Auto museum tunes in to the global communication channel, actualizes the vision of "building a museum of the society," and initiates international cultural exchanges and dialogue through cars, creating resonance in different dimensions.

Beijing Auto Museum possesses both technological and cultural attributes. The museum is positioned to reflect the “evolution of the industry, progress of civilization, and social development," and to follow the philosophy of "no borders in science, technology and social progress". By means of story-telling via technology, it is to fully utilize the historical, contemporary and futuristic capacity of exhibitions—to provide lessons from history, to serve the contemporary, and to obtain a future outlook. As a messenger of scientific technology and cultural ideas as well as the carrier of world evolution and Chinese civilization, it transforms the science and technology value, historical value, and cultural value of a museum into social value.

Beijing Auto Museum epitomizes people’s automobile dream and bears the aspiration of automobile makers. Over the recent past four years’ operation, the museum witnesses an increasing number of visitors every year, and holds dearly to its mission and responsibilities. As China has become a real auto manufacturing giant and the automobile has become a necessity in people’s life, we are now facing the bottlenecks of industrial development, weak automotive culture, and social issues in an automotive age; these challenges dictate careful consideration. In this historical context, a museum is expected not only to document the history but also to draw lessons from the history; to collect the historical records of the automotive industry and to chronicle the industrial development; to inspire the young people and to educate China’s future automotive engineers; and to disseminate automobile culture, particularly Chinese car culture. In addition to commemorating historical events, the responsibility, mission and operation of an auto museum is to shape the future, to bridge the past with the future, and to reflect the evolution of society.

(2) The distinctive functions of the museum in society

Beijing Auto Museum is a venue that serves triple functions: as a science museum, a museum, and an exhibition gallery. A traditional museum or a science museum focuses on collection research, and stresses the exhibition and educational function on the basis of rich museum collections. Beijing Auto Museum, with innovative exhibition design, extends the traditional services in collection, exhibition, research and education into ten major areas, including recreation, entertainment, tourism, promotion, creativity, and economy. In result, it not only benefits society, but also invigorates regional economy.

Today, museum visitors are more diversified – who show different characteristics and have different interests or demands at different times – rather than limited to a specific group of scholars or researchers. The visitors of Beijing Auto Museum generally fall into the following three groups. First, the families, mostly parents and children who usually come on weekends, holidays, during summer or winter vacations to foster family bonding and to stimulate the children's interest in cars. Second, the student groups, for the primary and secondary school students, the visits are mostly school trips organized by travel agencies to fulfill Social Study curriculum requirement of Beijing; as for the college students, they are mostly majoring in automotive or related disciplines and their visits are to meet the academic and social practice requirements that are set through the cooperation between their schools and the museum. Third, car lovers, they are mostly young people or the automotive industry workers, who come for institutional organized activities, training activities, or family day activities. In terms of age groups, teenagers account for more than one-third of all visitors.

Therefore, a museum needs to interact with the society in order to convert the cultural and technological value into social value. Fully exposed to an extensive social network, the museum is to disseminate technological and cultural ideas, to tell the stories of world evolution and Chinese civilization by means of scientific and technological presentations, to narrate the story of the cars, of the human race, and of China’s contribution to the mobile civilization, to exemplify China’s great invention by illustrating the chariot culture, and to integrate the development of Chinese automotive industry into the world’s centennial auto history, and to conduct dialogue with the global automotive culture.

The value of a museum is not about how magnificent it looks, how modern it is, or how many antiques it owns, but is more about its philosophy, vision and value system. It also lies in how much the museum could inspire the viewers, convey its spirits and social responsibility, and care for the people. To integrate with society, a museum is not simply to “cater”, but needs to actively embed itself in the social development, to be part of the national education system and the people’s cultural life, to promote the development and transformation of society, and to transform the technological, historical and cultural value of a museum into social value.

In March 2015, "Museum Regulations," China's first regulatory decree on museum management, was formally promulgated and implemented. Article III of the General Guideline specifies that museums should ensure their services adhere to serving the people and socialism, and stay close to reality, life, and the masses to enrich people's spiritual and cultural lives. In addition, the entire fourth chapter is devoted to social service guidelines for museums. The most valuable asset of today’s museum is precisely the capacity to meet social needs and the recognition of the viewers. Museums should dare to be creative in exhibitions, the popularization of science education, the international car cultural exchanges and so forth, actively respond to the demands of the society and the viewers, and live up to the responsibility and values of a museum in contemporary society.

II. The relationship between car culture development and an automobile society

The automotive industry is one of the pillar industries of a nation, while today's China has fully entered the automobile society, which is a concept whereby automobiles are more fundamentally woven into the fabric of society and are correlated with the people’s life, urban transport, the degree of civilization, technological development and the living environment. An automobile society exerts both positive and negative impacts, which call for public deliberation on problem solving and car-culture shaping. And an auto museum should undertake the mission and responsibility in providing the direction and guidance.

(1) Our responsibility: to save the Chinese car culture

China’s auto industry has developed along with the new China, from small to big, from imitation to innovation, from single-type production to independent brand building and to joint venture manufacturing. It embodies the collective wisdom of several generations of automotive makers since the founding of New China, contains the brainchild of automobile entrepreneurs from each generation, and manifests a legacy of hard-working and innovative spirit. One of the important functions of a museum is to reflect major changes and events in history. As the guidance of the profession states, “Today’s news is tomorrow’s history”. A museum needs to pay constant attention to the industry trends and keep a close relationship with the industry, especially with the booming automobile industry, so as to witness and to record the history. On the 60th founding anniversary of China’s automotive industry, we organized a special exhibition “Hongqi – Historical Witness and Spiritual Legacy, Chinese Automobile History: 60 Years On” based on the “Hongqi Spirit”. On the 30th anniversary of Chinese automobile joint venture, we staged an exhibition entitled “Witness and Experience the Excellence – Shanghai Volkswagen and Chinese Automobile Joint Venture: 30 Years On” from a standpoint of “the representative achievement of reform and opening up”. To echo the hot topics of the society, during the World Advertising Assembly, we presented the exhibition entitled “Automobiles and Life in Advertisement” by giving a review on the history of the automobile advertisement as well as a glimpse into the life with cars in the past. With the current new energy vehicles as the focus, we organized “Simple World, Easy Life – A Thematic Exhibition of New Energy Vehicles” to advocate the simple life style. This year, as the whole nation commemorates the 70th anniversary of the victory of the Counter-Japanese War, we have organized a special exhibition “The Cavalry Military Vehicles,” which is to advocate the unyielding spirit and the patriotism during the war of Resistance, showcase the development of domestically-made military vehicles that reflects China’s overall military strength, and to enhance national pride. The museum is where the thoughts are evoked, the sentiments are communicated, and the fruits of the industry and advanced technology are shared with more people. An automobile museum is not a museum that just displays cars, but a museum that makes today part of history in the future.

We have established a strategic partnership with Society of Automotive Engineers of China, Association of Automobile Manufacturers and China Automotive Technology and Research Center among others. We recruit professional specialists from industry organizations, including China Society of Automotive Engineering, Tsinghua University, Guangzhou Automobile Group, as well as researchers and experts from the fields of museum and education, and form “Beijing Auto Museum expert group” to provide professional support for the museum to disseminate car culture and science education. In 2013, Beijing Auto Museum launched the “oral history” project, which aims to document the history as complete as possible by adding video and audio elements to the original written records. Beijing Auto Museum hopes to save the history with the joint efforts from the media, enterprises and institutions, to carefully organize and record the aspiration and experience of the contributors and pioneers in China’s automobile history, and to clarify its complex development, so as to reveal historical truth and pass on valuable heritage for future generations. The systematic studies on automobile history and the documentation of the experience at home and abroad, including those valuable lessons from failure, are intended to shed light on future study, to improve social services, and to promote social progress.

(2) Our responsibility: to promote international car culture exchange

People are constrained by nationality while cars are not. In other words, we enjoy a broad space for international automotive culture exchanges. In celebration of the 50th founding anniversary of Sino-French Diplomatic Relations in 2014, Beijing Auto Museum, with the joint efforts from the National Automobile Museum of Mulhouse in France, planned a series of Sino-French automotive culture exchange activities, introduced the exhibition “French Models: Artistic, Technical and Professional Achievements 1891-1968” to Chinese audience, and promoted scholarly exchanges on antique car restoration techniques. We organized a special exhibition “Have a Ride in Hongqi: The Chinese Automobile History Since 1949,” the first Chinese car culture event that traveled abroad to the car’s birthplace – Europe. Through tracing the development of China’s national car “Hongqi” and these marques’ Chinese cultural elements, the struggles and difficulties in building Chinese automobile industry were brought to the public view. In the recent exhibition “Cavalry Military Vehicle,” the exhibits evidence the friendship between China and Russia. This exhibition also provides good ideas and approaches in the preparations for the 66th anniversary of China-Russia diplomatic relations. In the future, by employing cars as a medium and a communication tool, we can organize more cultural exchange events on similar commemorative occasions and optimize our function as a window to global culture.

In 2015, the Night at the Auto Museum, a public service project held in the museum plaza outside the regular business hours, brought together the social resources and introduced Urban Science Festival for the first time. Surprisingly, all the science programs drew roomfuls of audience, especially those live experiment demos presented by the guest scientists from the United States, Britain and Taiwan. Cars and science are inseparable in that automotive invention employs many scientific principles; science is also an international language. These provide a strong theoretical foundation and a broad horizon for an auto museum to pursue international cultural exchange through automobiles.

(3) Our responsibility: to train future talents at different levels for an automobile society

The Museum Regulations implemented since this March prioritizes educational service in terms of the function of the museums. Breaking from the traditionally educational ideology, Beijing Auto Museum stresses “hands-on” and “experience-based” exhibitions. More than 50 interactive exhibits that invite the viewers to participate with five senses embody the organic integration of contents and forms, technology and art, and “make science fun” by encouraging viewers’ participation. The museum strives to establish a comprehensive education system to educate future talents at different levels in an automobile society. In the interest of the primary and secondary schools, we plan to provide quality educational programs, to conduct research and practices in curriculum development and museum resource sharing in accordance with school education, and to explore a four-tier co-operation model that covers “thematic exhibition” “museum education”, “school-based curriculum development” and “talent training”. To serve automobile professionals, we plan to support the industry development based on the popular science education and the national strategic development. Against the backdrop that the automotive industry has been incorporated into the national development strategy, we strive to build a platform for innovation and practice, to train general specialists who are knowledgeable and practical, and to support and provide long-term professional training and talent fostering. To serve the general public, we aim to serve the automobile society where China is currently. Since our automobile civilization is not well developed, the conflicts between car and society and between cars and humans are being intensified; the traffic congestion, environment pollution, dangerous driving are worsening. It is our duty as an auto museum to actively take part in addressing these big issues of our time and to construct a sound car culture. To serve the patriotic education, we are determined to carry forward the national spirit. Automobiles not only encompass the achievement of science and technology but also embrace the humanistic spirit, which contains united sentiments of the people and a unified aspiration of the nation.

III. Car as a medium in cultural exchange and peer learning

(1) Exchanges diversify car culture

A car culture sums up the material and spiritual wealth that is related to automobiles. Starting out as a means of transportation, yet with the increasingly close relationship with people, cars greatly influence human life and social development; a car culture is thus created. Consisting of behavior patterns, customs, regulations, and value systems, a car culture is influential to people’s perspectives and behavior. Since the invention, design, production, transport, and utilization of the automobile reflect the mankind’s behavior, customs, regulations, and values when interacting with cars, people, the environment and society; they also imply the core values of being people-oriented, safe, pragmatic, comfortable, convenient, economical, environment-friendly, honest, serving, and innovative. As the automobiles change people’s life style, the car culture is developed differently in different countries, such as that in Germany, Japan or the United States. Depending on the development of automotive industry, regional cultures or national characters, every car culture has its distinctive features. It has been nearly 130 years since the first automobile was invented; in Germany, the birthplace of the first automobile, or in United States and Japan, where the automobiles were greatly promoted, a unique car culture has been formed. German car culture is a part of German culture; an important element of German culture is the German car. American car culture represents the values of the individual-oriented American society and manifests the high efficiency central to the capitalist spirit. In the United States, the ownership of a car is equivalent to a certain degree of freedom and autonomy. In France, the car is a piece of art, exuding French romantic spirit in life while releasing speed and passion in racetracks.

(2) Peer learning enriches car culture

As a landmark of modern industrial products, automobiles have been given the implication of human values, life styles, and sentimental needs in the process of improvement, popularization and development. They also reflect the aesthetic ideas in different times and of different groups of people, and form a unique car culture. The development of a car culture is closely related to the development of automotive industry. At the same time, the car culture of a region or a country is correspondent to the advancement of a country's automobile industry. In the beginning of the last century, the automobiles were introduced to China, and the car culture also landed with the “imported products”. However, due to the lack of national auto industry, a true Chinese car culture did not emerge until some time after the liberation of the nation. This situation was only fundamentally changed with the completion of the First Automobile Works and the production of the first batch of Jiefang trucks. Today, China has been the world's top giant in automobile production and sales for some consecutive years, which paves the way for the development of a car culture.

In terms of heritage, developmental trends, and spiritual content of a car culture, China might be still young. But as an ancient civilization, China boasts rich cultural heritage and precious traditional culture that suffice the prerequisite of researches. In addition, as China has become an automobile society, the blooming car shows, car races, and automobile cultural festivals highlight a heated car culture. From this perspective, after the rapid development of auto market in recent years, China's car culture already has the soil to grow and develop. There is a great distance between the levels of research and consumption. Since culture is essential to the vitality of an auto enterprise and automotive application, the study of the car culture is parallel to the study of the traditional culture. The aspiration to build Chinese automobile brands is more important than the dream to build a car-manufacturing power. People are constrained by nationality while cars are not, which means we have a broad horizon for international car culture exchanges.

(3) Beijing Auto Museum’s preliminary research framework on car culture

Beijing Auto Museum introduces and presents car culture, conducts exchanges and collaborations between countries, museums and people. Based on the past practical experiences and the future planning, we design a preliminary research framework with ten key areas as follows:

On car culture history: The purposes of study is to learn from history, to use history as a mirror, to record history, and to save history and the approach is to conduct a systematic and comprehensive study by years and by nations.

On antique car culture: The antique car is a combination of art and technology, bearing strong historical connotations and unique charms. The focus of this study includes appreciation, preservation, maintenance and restoration among others.

On Auto Racing Culture: Car racing mirrors the development of automobiles, faithfully reflecting the evolution of the automobile and society. This study focuses on racing events.

On car culture and media: The development of automobile industry enriches the car culture; the history of car advertisement also indirectly reflects the development of automobile history, reflecting social phenomena of the time. This research proceeds according to media and periods of time.

On car-model culture: There are different car models for people of different ages, different personalities, different experiences, and for different environments. This study classifies the models into two categories: the dynamic type and the static type.

On transportation civilization: China is a country of Rites. Civilized traffic is a shared aspiration and it needs the support from everyone. The study is to explore the integration of traditional culture and modern civilization.

On culture of automobile consumption: The automobile consumption culture emerges along with the popularization of car ownership. The research focuses on different stages of development.

On culture of automobile exhibition: Exhibition plays an important role in the exchanges and cooperation among domestic and international auto industries. The study is based on the categorization of exhibitions.

On road-trip culture: The term “self-drive road trip” first appeared in the US and later has become a popular form of tourism in developed countries and a favorite traveling type for car owners. The study focuses on traveling by car and RV.

On culture of automobile photography: Automobiles represent a mobile civilization, of which the striking images are captured by photographers. The research is a thematic study on the cars freeze-framed in photographs.

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IV. Conclusion

Culture civilizes the people’s soul and cultivates the nation’s spirit. President Xi Jinping put forward the two centennial goals, and the goal to fulfill the Chinese dream – the great rejuvenation of the nation. Premier Li Keqiang endorsed the first 10-year action plan Made in China 2025 with a preset goal of building China into a world-famous manufacturing giant. The car manufacture, automobile history, and car brands, correspond to a nation’s development; the renowned long-time automobiles come from competitive countries. To achieve the goal of Automobile Made in China 2025, we need to make Chinese culture the DNA of Chinese brands, to present the unique charm of Chinese culture and to develop a car culture with Chinese characteristics; we need to care about, observe and understand the correlation and mutual reinforcement between automobiles and the societal aspects, such as economy, technology, culture and politics by taking the perspective of a developing automobile society. Our goals are: first, to become the national landmark of cultural establishment and to take the responsibility to present car culture; second, to become the representative exchange platform of car culture between China and the world; third, to be the leader in popularizing car culture. As part of the national education system and part of the people’s cultural life, Beijing Auto Museum will carry out international cultural exchange by employing automobiles as the medium and hold high the banner of car culture. By examining the history and the social development and changes, we take it upon ourselves to convey fair views on the history, the nations, the countries, and the culture and to enhance the Chinese spirit and confidence.