Journey to the past: the compelling narrative of Shanghai History Museum

Tan Weiyun
The history of the city never fails to intrigue locals and visitors alike, and this museum offers a comprehensive guided tour.
Tan Weiyun

Editor’s note:

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was Shanghai. Once dubbed "the Paris of the East,” the city has evolved into a fusion of multiculturalism. Along the way, Shanghai has accumulated a repository of stories about the people and events that have shaped its history. Five areas of the city occupy pride of place in that journey: People’s Square, Jing’an Temple, Xujiahui, Lujiazui and Xintiandi. This series, a collaboration with Shanghai Local Chronicles Library, visits them all to follow in the footsteps of time.

Shanghai History Museum whispers tales of empires risen and fallen, of struggle and triumph, of pride and wisdom, of grand dreams and a spirit of innovation. Here, within the walls of a storied edifice is the portal to the city’s illustrious past.

This icon of neoclassical architecture invites people to step through its doors and traverse the ages — from the Majiabang Culture that existed 6,000 years ago to the resonant beat of a modern city born through reform and development.

Every exhibit, every artifact reveals a piece of a long chronology that fascinates both locals and visitors alike.

The museum is housed in what was once the Shanghai Race Club — a prominent feature itself in the city’s history, built in 1933. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the venue on Nanjing Road W. housed various civic institutions, including Shanghai Library and Shanghai Art Museum, before becoming Shanghai History Museum’s home in 2017.

The building’s structure features an imposing red-brick and stone facade, Tashkent-style colonnades and an iconic tower with four large clocks beneath a spire. The architecture is a tribute to solemnity, simplicity and elegance.

Journey to the past: the compelling narrative of Shanghai History Museum
Ti Gong

The building’s clock tower is one of the landmarks at People’s Square.

The museum didn’t have a permanent location before. After moving in, it encompasses exhibition space across two main buildings and an open courtyard. Its collection includes more than 1,100 artifacts spanning archeology, politics, economic progress, culture and lifestyle. About 80 percent of the collection is on public display for the first time.

Among the exhibits that never fail to draw visitor interest are the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) furniture from the Pan Yunzheng Tomb and a bronze cannon that belonged to national hero Chen Huacheng (1776-1842), a general in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) responsible for Shanghai’s defense during the First Opium War (1840-42).

The museum’s treasures include an emblem of the old Shanghai Municipal Council, an authentic rickshaw from the 1930s and the majestic bronze lions that once flanked the entrance staircase of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Building on the Bund.

Equally intriguing is the Baizi-painted wedding sedan, which shows the unique blend of Chinese and Western matrimonial customs, and the many personal artifacts of historical figures, including handwritten notes and official seals.

Other artifacts include ancient Gu embroidery of flowers, insects and fish, Hou Tongceng’s Cursive Scroll, and the Golden Sutras of Qibao Temple.

Journey to the past: the compelling narrative of Shanghai History Museum
Ti Gong

Shanghai History Museum is housed in the former Shanghai Race Club building on Nanjing Road W.

Embracing advanced technologies, the museum utilizes immersive experiences to transport visitors back in time.

In enclosed structures devoid of natural light, massive canvas backdrops depict meticulously recreated scenes of city life, including traditional cobblestone streets and back lane abodes.

There is so much history to absorb that one trip is never enough for those intrigued by the city’s storied path to a modern metropolis.

Special Reports