Up on a mountain overlooking the city of Hangzhou, a replica of an epic 1720 imperial feast spins on a motorized lazy susan. In Beijing, a model White House is just down the street from a mini Eiffel Tower and scalable pyramids of Giza. From starchitect-built contemporary art centers to the staid but excellent history museums in every provincial capital, China is awash in museums. But for a real deep dive into the culture, seek out these spots that are illuminating, distinct, or just plain odd.
Museum of Ethnic Costumes
Set on the campus of the Beijing Fashion Institute of Technology, this small museum houses more than 10,000 pieces (only a fraction of which are on display), showcasing the vibrant clothing of China’s many ethnic minorities. The first room features exquisite examples of embroidery, such as the painstaking floral brocade of the Tujia people in the Hunan Province. Another section focusses on the massive, neck-straining silver chokers and elaborate headpieces worn by minorities of the southwest. And somewhat incongruously, the final room features the uniforms worn at e 2008 Olympic Games. One catch: the museum is only open on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays for limited hours.
While this one may be stretching the concept of museum, World Park is perhaps Beijing’s most fun – not to mention Instagram-friendly – place to wile away an afternoon. All the major world regions are represented, with replicas of famous landmarks from Angkor Wat to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Jia Zhangke’s 2004 major-downer movie The World, about a group of fictional theme-park workers, was shot on the grounds.
Hangzhou Cuisine Museum
Life-size replicas of iconic dishes are lit up and displayed behind glass like precious of artifacts at the Hangzhou Cuisine Museum, which highlights everything from Buddhist vegetarian meals to the evolution of local delicacies to utensils dating back to ancient times. The museum’s centerpiece, though, is the partial re-creation of the Manchu-Han Imperial Feast, the three-day, 108-dish birthday party held for Emperor Kangxi in the Forbidden City – the meal that’s gone down in history as the most extravagant Chinese banquet ever. While there are English captions, explanatory material is somewhat lacking, but the onsite restaurant is delicious in any language. Non-Chinese-speaking visitors will need a hotel to arrange a car or provide very explicit bus directions to get to the museum, located on Phoenix Hill.
Folk Art Museum
The China Academy of Art – quite possibly the world’s most beautiful art school – is a dreamy mix of modernist and indigenous architecture that’s nestled in Xiangshan Mountain. At the heart of the campus is Japanese architect Kengo Kuma’s Folk Art Museum. The peaked structure mimics the surrounding hills, with a facade covered in a screen of steel wire and grey roofing tiles recycled from traditional housing. Inside, exhibits cover crafts and folk art from shadow puppetry to contemporary blown glass. A climb up to the roof reveals a view of the ever-evolving cityscape outside. Like the Cuisine Museum, this spot is out in the suburbs and best accessed by a hired car.
Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences
Set in an Edwardian building in the Mid-Levels, the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences dives into the history of western and traditional Chinese medicine. On view are X-rays and a life-like model of feet subjected to foot-binding (a horrific practice outlawed in the early 1900s), as well as ancient and modern examples of acupuncture needles. Outside, a garden is stocked with medicinal herbs and plants.
Heritage of Mei Ho House Museum
Like the Tenement Museum in New York City, the Heritage of Mei Ho House Museum gives a glimpse into historical working-class housing. One of the earliest examples of a public housing estate in Hong Kong, the building went up in 1954, providing shelter for victims of a fire the previous year as well as mainlanders crossing into Hong Kong after World War II. The H-shaped building plan had two wings of apartments, connected by a central corridor of communal bathrooms and kitchens. The museum consists of a few rooms that recreate old homes with artifacts from the 1950s to 1970s, plus oral histories from former residents.
Museum of Public Security
Shanghai’s Museum of Public Security celebrates the city’s police force, which dates back to 1854, moving from the days of foreign concessions and up to the current era. On view are tools of the trade like a convertible police cruiser and the weapons of so many James Bond fantasies (guns hidden in walking sticks and a Chinese lute case). Other exhibits feature grisly crime-scene photos and examples of contraband, from heroin to dirty magazines.
Featured image is the Folk Art Museum at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou; photo by Eiichi Kano