In its quest to become the cosmopolitan and culturally savvy city worthy of hosting the World Expo in 2010, Shanghai set a mildly ambitious goal of establishing 100 museums. To meet this quota, everything from navy ships to Chinese medicines has been encased in glass and given its own building. To spare the time-limited traveler, the more worthwhile sights have been given their own listings and more detailed descriptions. Many of Shanghai's museums and historic residences are housed in the European mansions and estates of colonial Shanghai where the setting is often the chief attraction. While lighting and display are seldom state of the art and English signage can be spotty or nonexistent, simply touring these fine storehouses is fascinating enough.
Shanghai Museum (Shanghai Bowuguan)
Frequently cited as the best museum in China, the Shanghai Museum has 11 state-of-the-art galleries and three special exhibition halls arranged on four floors, all encircling a spacious cylindrical atrium. The exhibits are tastefully displayed and well lit, and explanatory signs are in English as well as Chinese. For size, the museum's 120,000 historic artifacts cannot match the world-renowned Chinese collections in Beijing, Taipei, and Xi'an, but are more than enough to fill the galleries on any given day with outstanding treasures. Many foreign visitors to the museum often rank it as Shanghai's very best site.
Essentials -- Located downtown on the south side of People's Square (Renmin Guangchang) at Renmin Da Dao 201 (tel. 021/6372-3500; www.shanghaimuseum.net), the museum has its main entrance on the north side of the building, facing the three monumental structures that now occupy the north half of the square (Grand Theatre to the west, City Hall in the middle, Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center to the east). Metro Lines 1, 2, and 8 have their main stations on the northeast corner of People's Square. The Shanghai Museum is open daily from 9am to 5pm (no tickets distributed after 4pm). Admission is free, though there is a limit of 5,000 visitors a day, so if you visit on the weekend, be sure to arrive early. Audio phones providing narratives of the major exhibits in English, French, Japanese, Spanish, German, and Italian are available for rent (¥40 plus a deposit of ¥400 or your passport) at the counter to your left as you enter the lobby.
Exploring the Shanghai Museum (Shanghai Bowuguan) -- Unlike many museums in China, the Shanghai Museum is arranged by theme rather than by dynasty. Though visitors all have their individual favorites, the Bronze Gallery and the Stone Sculpture Gallery on the first floor and the Painting Gallery on the third floor are generally considered the most impressive. Elevators, escalators, and stairways serve each floor. A large gift shop on the ground floor sells museum reproductions, books, postcards, and gifts; and smaller shops are located on the other floors.
Begin your tour on the first floor at the Ancient Chinese Bronze Gallery, which boasts a marvelous collection of more than 400 bronzes from the 18th to the 3rd centuries B.C. typically reserved for use only by nobles and royalty. Standouts include two wine vessels with animal mask designs, one in the shape of an ox (zun) and the other a traditional pot (he) used by the king of Wu, both dating from the Late Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 B.C.). There's also a typical food vessel on three legs (ding) from the Western Zhou Dynasty (1100-771 B.C.), the shape of which is said to be the inspiration for the museum building, which certainly resembles an ancient ding from afar. The Ancient Chinese Sculpture Gallery has sculptures spanning the Warring States period to the Ming Dynasty (475 B.C.-A.D. 1644), including a kneeling clay figure playing a bamboo flute from the Eastern Han (A.D. 25-200) and a Buddhist image of Sakyamuni in stone from the Northern Qi (A.D. 550-577).
On the second floor, the Ceramics Gallery contains many tricolor figurines from the magnificent Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) and delicately painted and fired pots from the Ming Dynasty (A.D. 1368-1644) kilns at Jingde Zhen; the gallery is definitely worth a tour if you love your china.
On the third floor, the Painting Gallery contains many ancient, original works on silk scrolls, including landscapes from the Ming Dynasty and Buddhist scrolls from the Tang and Song (A.D. 960-1279) dynasties. Typical is the ink brush scroll by Emperor Zhao Ji (A.D. 1083-1135) of the Song Dynasty titled for its subjects, Willow, Crows, Reed, and Wild Geese. The Calligraphy Gallery shows the various styles of artistic "handwriting" developed in China over many centuries, with specimens as old as the Tang Dynasty. Altogether, the museum owns some 15,000 of these fine scrolls. The Seal Gallery has intricate carved chops in stone used by emperors and their courts to notarize official documents. On this floor, displays show the basic elements of calligraphy, explaining the relationship between Chinese painting and calligraphy, and demonstrating how the artists' tools were used.
The fourth floor has a splendid Jade Gallery, with intricately carved jade wine vessels, jewelry, and ornaments, some from as early as the Liangzhu Culture (31st-22nd c. B.C.). The Coin Gallery displays coins that predate the First Emperor's reign (221-207 B.C.), as well as gold coins from Persia discovered on the Silk Road. The Ming and Qing Furniture Gallery has elaborately carved screens inlaid with jade from the Qing Dynasty (A.D. 1644-1911), a six-poster canopy bed, and a wonderful, folding wooden armchair from the Ming Dynasty (A.D. 1368-1644). The Minority Nationalities' Art Gallery displays some lovely costumes, jewelry, dioramas, and ceremonial creations from the more remote, non-Han Chinese reaches of the Chinese empire, most of them dating from the early 20th century.
Shanghai has an inordinately large number of unusual museums, usually of interest only to specialists or aficionados. To wit: China's only eyeglasses museum can be found at the Shanghai Glasses Museum (Shanghai Yanjing Bowuguan, Baochang Lu 533, Zhabei District, tel. 021/5697-7528; admission ¥10; Tues-Wed and Fri-Sat 9-11am and 1:30-4pm; Chinese signage only); while an interesting collection of musical instruments seldom seen in the West can be viewed at the Museum of Oriental Musical Instruments (Shanghai Dongfang Yueqi Bowuguan, Gao'an Lu 18, near Hengshan Lu, Xuhui District; tel. 021/5465-1834; free admission; Mon-Fri 9-11am and 1:30-4pm). It's a smoker's paradise in China (where an estimated 350 million people smoke) and also here at the China Tobacco Museum (Shanghai Yancao Bowuguan, Changyang Lu 728, near Tongbei Lu, Yangpu District; tel. 021/6166-5907; www.tobaccomuseum.com.cn; free admission; Tues, Thurs, and Sat 9am-4pm), the world's largest museum of its kind with seven exhibition halls. The Shanghai Auto Museum (Shanghai Qiche Bowuguan, Boyuan Lu 7565, Anting Town; tel. 021/6955-0055; www.shautomuseum.gov.cn; admission ¥60; Tues-Sun 9:30am-4:30pm [last ticket 4pm]), by the Formula One racetrack out in the suburb of Anting, traces the history of the automobile both in China and around the world; train spotters might want to check out the Shanghai Railway Museum (Shanghai Tielu Bowuguan, Tianmu Dong Lu 200, Zhabei District; tel. 021/5122-1987; www.museum.shrail.com; admission ¥10; Tues-Sat 9-11am and 2-4pm).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.