Atoms and Bits of Cultural Heritage: The Use of Dunhuang Collections in Knowledge Making, Nation Building, Museum Diplomacy, Cultural Tourism and Digital Economy

Shuchen Wang

    Research output: ThesisDoctoral ThesisMonograph


    The Dunhuang objects, preserved now at dozens of GLAM institutes worldwide, including the universal museums in Western metropolises and in the country of origin China, raise a series of rich issues. Unlike the Parthenon Marbles, Rosetta Stone and Benin Bronzes, these issues are still rarely discussed in the international forum of museology or heritage studies. This extensive research is intended to bridge this knowledge gap by providing a comprehensive understanding, in a comparative and analytic perspective, of the lives of these cultural objects shaped by the entangled world history. Building on the concept of object biography, this research, anchored in collection, exhibition and digitisation, presents a holistic view on the destinies of the Dunhuang objects, altered through decontextualisation and recontextualization. Mainly applying historical methods, this thesis reports the findings drawn from original data collection and secondary data analysis of the public uses of Dunhuang objects in the West and China through specific time periods: colonisation, decolonisation, WWI and WWII, Cold War, post-conflict era and the Digital Age. From 1900, after being found by a Chinese Taoist abbot in Chinese Central Asia and removed by Western orientalists supported by the colonial powers during the Great Game, new identities are imposed on the Dunhuang objects: scientific specimens (in archaeology, anthropology or art history), works of (fine) art, colonial acquisitions, public property, national treasures, symbols of cultural identity, targets of heritage and museum diplomacy, tourism destination and digital content for the creative industry and experience economy. Removed from the Buddhist altars in Dunhuang, these religious objects are potent still in affecting peoples’ political, economic and cultural lives. The display of these objects—from sombre grotto-shrines to the white-cube of decolonised muséographie and the black-box of immersive exhibition with virtual and augmented reality—can reflect how Dunhuang objects perform in a transbordered knowledge network through globalised museum praxis and heritage enterprise. This heritage process resonates with questions of coloniality and transculturation, facilitated by the international cultural political platform ICOM-UNESCO-UN. Linking heritage preservation with development work thus impairs delinking coloniality. Coming into the 21st century, Dunhuang becomes a flagship to promote the China Dream by the Belt and Road Initiative. Carrying foreign direct investments of China in megaprojects of infrastructure and cultural tourism, this UNESCO certified world heritage site has become a brand to export China’s soft diplomacy and sharp power. Although internet technology enables the reunification of Dunhuang collections in the mobile and web environment, the digital divide between the West and China is deepened due to the power struggle of neoliberal world politics. This thorough investigation of the interdisciplinary and cross-cultural fields of the biography of Dunhuang objects makes significant contribution not just to the histories of collections but also a range of important issues such as representation, reception and positioning in broader institutional, social and political contexts. This research is unique and original especially because of the exploration on the Western and Chinese cultural traditions and systems that resulted in the making and uses of Dunhuang objects, from heritage to cultural heritage and digital cultural heritage, as well as from regional to national and world heritage.
    Translated title of the contributionAtoms and Bits of Cultural Heritage : The Use of Dunhuang Collections in Knowledge Making, Nation Building, Museum Diplomacy, Cultural Tourism and Digital Economy
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor's degree
    Awarding Institution
    • Aalto University
    • Tavin, Kevin, Supervising Professor
    • Gill, David, Thesis Advisor
    Print ISBNs978-952-60-8684-2
    Electronic ISBNs978-952-60-8685-9
    Publication statusPublished - 2019
    MoE publication typeG4 Doctoral dissertation (monograph)


    • Dunhuang objects
    • entangled world history
    • comparative museology
    • museum diplomacy
    • cultural tourism
    • digital economy


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