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Museums playing with China’s youth subcultures: from animal influencers to dancing relics

How do museums get cute, naughty and playful? Chinese museums have been tackling this question in hopes of appealing to the young audience. Museums in China used to be “temples” to worship history and culture. But in recent years, there has been an amazing shift in the mindset. Even the National Museum of China attempted to show a personal side on social media. As Western museums aspire to attract Chinese audience, it is worth looking to their Chinese counterparts for some inspirations.

Animal influencers

Instead of designing mascots, why not choose animals that are connected with the place and have stories to tell? In Beijing’s Palace Museum, around 200 “civil servant” cats have lived there for generations and protected this world’s largest wooden architecture complex from rats. The museum once disclosed that receiving cat food from fans has become a daily sweet burden.

But Guanfu Museum is probably the only museum in the world that has appointed cats as museum directors. When visitors arrive at the ticket window, they are greeted by the operation director Ma Tiaotiao, a cat with black and grey stripes who enjoys patrolling around the window to monitor sales.

As visitors walk into the courtyard with parasol trees, a wooden house filled with antique furniture comes to their eyes, that is, the office of cat directors. Then inside the exhibition halls, they may encounter the reception director Huang Qiangqiang, a white cat who is not shy to interact with every guest. Each cat holds a position that suits his or her personality.

The lunch party is an unmissable scene for every visitor. At noon, over 30 cats come from all corners of the museum and line up in the courtyard. Despite a crowd of onlookers standing to take photos, museum directors are used to big scenes and remain cool. They calmly eat from their plates made by ceramics masters. With this harmonious and adorable scene, it is evident that these cats bring life to the museum and add a special touch to the visit.

What’s more, Guanfu cats have their own souvenirs, cartoon books, talk shows, a children’s play and an official Weibo account with more than 224,000 fans. Lonely in the big cities, more and more young Chinese are getting addicted to cats and petting cats (撸猫lu mao) is their favorite way to reduce stress and seek comfort. As China’s first private museum located in the outskirt of Beijing, Guanfu Museum used to hardly receive visitors. Thanks to all the creative marketing around cats, it has become one of the most popular museums among young people and family with children.

To celebrate this special bond, the museum has curated exhibitions showing cute antiques inspired by cats and other animals in history. Ma Weidu, the museum founder, attributed this to fate, which saw the arrival of the first stray cat in 2003. Since both cats and museum are quiet and graceful, there is some sort of fit. What’s more, cats treat every museum guest the same. “Nowadays people appear close but their hearts drift far apart. But in the world of cats, love has no boundary and no interest,” Ma tells The Paper.

Museum stickers

Stickers (表情包 biao qing bao) is the new language of China’s youth. While they may appear reserved in the public, they use stickers to express themselves in the wildest way online. Compared with emojis, stickers are much more diverse and personalized. A skillfully used sticker can convey the state of mind, hint feelings, spice up or terminate the conversation without awkwardness. Even when two young Chinese argue online, they often battle with stickers, furiously throwing stickers in a kind of competition to show who has more stickers or the funniest.

Museums can speak this language smartly to connect with young people. Last year, Gansu Provincial Museum in northwestern China unveiled a batch of 16 WeChat stickers, showing historical relics with vivid facial expressions and hilarious lines. An instant internet hit, these stickers attracted the attention of over 300 media, achieving 100 million views online. The museum also witnessed a sharp increase of visitors, as sticker lovers stepped inside the museum to see the real relics.

Dancing relics

Chinese museums also venture into TikTok, a video sharing app and subculture community. 2018 International Museum Day saw the phenomenal success of a video entitled “The First Rally of Relics Drama Queen/King (戏精xi jing)”. Created under the theme of “Hyper-connected museums: new approaches, new public”, the video featured a diverse cast of famous relics that Chinese are used to seeing from history books. After “sleeping” for thousands of years, they came live one night and started dancing to the killer beats.

A tri-colored glazed pottery girl from the Tang Dynasty was doing the “clap dance”, while a bronze vessel with a monster-like face from the Shang Dynasty was winking his “98k electronic eye”, both of which were viral dance challenges on TikTok. Even those serious Terracotta Warriors couldn’t wait to show their dance moves. This mesmerizing contrast attracted over 118 million views within four days, 184 times of the annual visitors to the British Museum.

The video was a collaboration between TikTok and the National Museum of China, along with six provincial museums. Within a few hours of launching this video, the official TikTok account of the National Museum of China has attracted almost half a million followers. Its bio reads, “Surprised I’m here, huh?”

As Western museums reopen and get a bit more relaxed, it might be time to play with China’s youth subcultures in marketing and delight the next wave of Chinese visitors.

About the author – Lin Wang

Lin means forest in Chinese. I discover fresh consumer insights and help international companies adapt their marketing strategies to China. My articles on Chinese consumer culture have appeared on Luxury Society, Jing Daily, South China Morning Post, RADII, etc. I was born in Ningbo, a bustling port known for its dumplings and seafood.

Find Lin on LinkedIn here.

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