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The Sun Shines
on Pittsburgh— and Shanghai

Initiated by a staff member named Sun, information exchanges between Shanghai’s Science and Technology Museum and Carnegie Museum of Natural History are turning into something more.














It started with a woman known for her bright personality, a last name of (not surprisingly) Sun, and the nickname “Peachblossom.” It originally involved six people and now involves millions. What is this phenomenon? It’s the relationship between Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum (SSTM). And it’s only just beginning.

Situated in the financial district of China’s largest city, SSTM opened in 2001 in a multi-million-dollar complex the size of 13 football fields. It features two IMAX theaters, six exhibition halls, and a natural history wing culled from the older Shanghai Natural History Museum.

Known as a “palace of science,” SSTM serves China’s national plan to revitalize the country through education and science. But after receiving massive crowds during opening months, it has experienced a dip in attendance and turned to other
museums for ideas.

Carnegie Museum of Natural History is one such museum, attracting SSTM’s attention for its renowned science, exhibitions, and education programs. Responsible for the initial contact was the museum’s library manager, Xianghua “Peachblossom” Sun, who moved to Pittsburgh in 1989 as part of an international scholars program that connected museums around the world. Sun grew up in China and worked for the Shanghai Museum of Natural History for 17 years.

“ Shanghai and Pittsburgh are the two places I call home,” says Sun, who goes by the colorful nickname Peachblossom, a title earned while eating lunch outside the museum one sunny, spring day. “People appreciated my cheery disposition, and the nickname stuck,” she explains. “I even sign interoffice emails with the initials PB.”

When Sun found out SSTM was seeking a partner with which to exchange information, she convinced then-Deputy Director Sylvia Keller to arrange a visit from six Shanghai representatives. Arriving the summer of 2002, the group of scientists and administrators spent two weeks learning about the Museum of Natural History’s mission and structure, while also getting a bird’s-eye-view of its education programs. “They were full of questions about how to build a successful natural history wing,” recalls Sun, who served as a translator during the visit. “And they learned from us that it takes more than an expensive building and a lot of money; it takes years of research, a strong collection, and focused audiences.”

The first visit proved so fruitful that it set off a series of other visits and laid the foundation for a long-term relationship. The next exchange came the following year, when Keller, Sun, Museum Director Bill DeWalt, and Chair of Exhibits Jim Senior spent a week in Shanghai viewing SSTM’s facilities and delivering formal presentations about the Pittsburgh museum’s administrative structure and educational programming. “They were particularly impressed with our outreach programs to schools and the community in general,” says DeWalt. “Like many science museums, they face the challenge of attracting repeat visitors because their exhibits rarely change. We helped them realize how museum education programs can serve the public and drive attendance.”

Between meetings, DeWalt and his colleagues also toured Shanghai’s older Natural History Museum, where Sun once worked. Despite losing staff members and part of its collection to SSTM, the museum remains open to the public.

“ Shanghai Natural History Museum is in poor condition,” laments Sun. “We saw specimens in jars that were colorless, exhibits that were outdated, and a huge shortage of people staffing the facility.”

Opened in 1956 and located in an older part of Shanghai, the Natural History Museum looks unlike the modern museums cropping up throughout the city. In an effort to update the facility and become a world-class natural history museum—one that surpasses the natural history wing of SSTM—scientists and administrators are seeking government support for a new building. They hope to equip it with state-of-the-art exhibitions and programs in science and education.

“ The prospect of a new natural history museum in Shanghai means a lot to us,” says DeWalt. “It could open the door to more partnerships in science and collaborative exhibitions.”

Until then, DeWalt explains, the collaboration will stay focused on education, a high priority for both SSTM and Carnegie Museum of Natural History. A week-long visit in October 2005 centered on this goal and involved Education Chair Diane Gryzbek and Education Specialist Pat McShea, who traveled to Shanghai by special invitation to provide an overview of their division’s structure and financial plan.

“ They wanted to know the nitty-gritty of how we run and manage our programs,” says Grzybek. “We spent an entire day talking about admission fees, rates for school groups, endowments, donors, and relationships with corporations.”

Like other government-sponsored cultural organizations in China, SSTM wants to learn more about diversifying funding sources and building programs that sustain themselves with admission fees. This endeavor comes at a time of rapid industrialization and financial growth in China, during which the centrally-planned economy is starting to shift to more of a market economy. Says Jin Xingbao, deputy director of the Shanghai Museum: “The collaboration with Carnegie Museum of Natural History helps us realize the crucial role of education and how we can use it efficiently. Our programs are a great marketing tool and an indispensable part of our museum branding.”

To Sun, whose family and friends still live in Shanghai, Jin’s words are a dream come true. “The current focus on education offers an invaluable service to my homeland,” she says. “Few Chinese people attend university, but many are hungry for knowledge. This is a perfect way to satisfy their hunger.”

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