The Shanghai History Museum is worth visiting for many reasons. Two years in the making, the newly renovated and extended space contains a 9,800-square-meter (that's 2.42 acres) exhibition area, with around 1,100 artifacts on display. Even in the non-stop, edge-of-your-seat excitement of free-entry museum world, its reopening in late March of this year caused a stir. During its opening week, people queued up as early as 5am in the morning to secure entry. It’s still busy even now, almost a month after opening, although the sheer size of this architectural behemoth means visitor capacity isn't a problem.
... So now's a good time to visit!
You probably can't find a better place to learn about Shanghai history than People's Square, home to many of this city's centuries-old buildings, monuments, and cultural landmarks. The Shanghai History Museum sits at its core. Built in 1934 as the Shanghai Race Club and known for its iconic bell tower, the building has been through many transformations over the decades. After its most recent refurbishment, it maintains its well-preserved retro colonial look and even leans to the future inside the building with state-of-the-art interactive displays.
The museum is organized into three sections: special exhibitions (ground floor); ancient Shanghai (2nd floor); and modern Shanghai (3rd, 4th floor). Traveling from bottom to top, guests are treated to a really comprehensive archive of Shanghai’s history in chronological order. It even picks up in an era that predates Shanghai altogether: Neolithic China.
For Chinese growing up, we’ve always been taught that China has “5,000 years of history”. Hey, that’s undebatable. And we are not too humble about it either. Quite a few archaeological objects on display in the Museum, however, are from a culture that goes back to 6,000 - 7,000 years ago: The Majiabang culture, discovered mostly at the Songze excavation site, in present-day Qingpu District.
The ancient Shanghai section is simply fascinating. You get to see how our ancestors learned to use precious materials like jade and ivory to create delicate ceremonial tools, alongside the development of more refined and specialized utensils and clothing, elucidating a compelling series of snapshots of how civilization evolved in the Yangtze River Delta.
Both the third and the fourth floor are dedicated to modern Shanghai. And that’s where things get a bit heavier…
Oh... That: Colonization and Wars
This is where the collections become much more historically immediate and Shanghai-centered. The modern Shanghai section is divided into seven parts that begin at Shanghai’s opening up for international trade, in the eighteenth century. Historical events like the Sino-Japanese War, The Battle of Shanghai and the Cultural Revolution, as well as the gleaming ‘golden age’ and economic growth, are presented vividly here, with the help of immersive lighting and sound systems.
One often finds oneself deposited into a scene before the liberation — a secret printing factory and newspaper office are recreated here — depicting the difficult, perilous wartime period. In all, these two floors are vast and full of acquisitions that reflect the political, cultural, and societal change of Shanghai. On display: a three-meter-long canon that was made during the First Opium War, thumb-sized badges of primary and middle schools in Shanghai (really cool badges); and the exquisite “eight tools for eating crabs”...
Tons of stuff to see. The last time I was on my feet this long I was at a music festival.
The Overall Experience
Aside from the crowd, elderly citizens and kids who occasionally make too much noise or invade your personal space, there are a lot of things the museum does exceedingly well:
1. Accurate and detailed English translations. At least 80% of the descriptions here are bilingual. They also provide English audio guides (20rmb each, plus 200rmb deposit). The human guide is free for groups that have more than 20 people (need to book three days in advance).
2. Free public services. Including WiFi, wheelchairs, strollers, phone charging stations, storage, first-aid medicines and sewing kits… and most importantly, free (warm) water.
3. Clean and well-maintained facilities. Each floor has clean bathrooms, and I noticed many hard-working cleaning ladies at the exhibition halls.
4. Interactive digital installments. There are lots of them to keep both kids and adults entertained.
5. You don’t exit through a gift shop.
The museum showcases Shanghai’s history, China’s history, and a shared human history that everyone can learn from. Go in the morning, and you can easily spend at least half a day there — longer if you're a history enthusiast.
The rooftop is a nice place to chill. The newly renovated Rooftop 325 seems quite busy at noon.
But Wait There's More
I’m not finished yet. Besides the aforementioned oil painting exhibition located on the ground floor, there are three more temporary exhibitions currently ongoing in the east building, running until June 24. One is a document exhibition about Chen Yi, dubbed ‘The first mayor of new Shanghai’; the other two are located in adjacent halls: ‘Remain True to Original Aspirations — a Historical Exhibition of The Communist Manifesto’, and ‘The Bell Rings Once More — the History of the New Site of Shanghai History Museum’.
The closest subway exit to Shanghai History Museum is People Square Station, Exit 11. It runs from Tuesday to Sunday, 9am-5pm.