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A Biography of a Building: The Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts

Front entrance to main building of the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum. Photo: Pamela N. Corey

Front entrance to main building of the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum. Photo: Pamela N. Corey

Post-1975 galllery, Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum. Photo: Pamela N. Corey

Post-1975 galllery, Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum. Photo: Pamela N. Corey

Display of sketches and materials used by wartime artists in the field, Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum. Photo: Pamela N. Corey

Display of sketches and materials used by wartime artists in the field, Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum. Photo: Pamela N. Corey

North side of entrance to Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum. Photo: Pamela N. Corey

North side of entrance to Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum. Photo: Pamela N. Corey

The Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts is no stranger to the obstacles facing numerous such institutions throughout the region. These include structural problems resulting from inadequate state funding, insufficient staff training and professional expertise, and improper storage of objects and archiving of documentation. Furthermore, the museum contends, as do most museums in the area, with issues surrounding its role in mediating and disseminating knowledge about Vietnamese art history, maintaining what are typically lackluster and unchanging permanent exhibitions of objects to illustrate a chronology of artistic and historical development according to officially sanctioned narratives of the nation-state.

Given their shortcomings, such museums are often the subject of ethnographic interest for their symbolic value as spaces where the behaviors of local ritual veneration meet those of modern aesthetic and historical appreciation, or for their function as apparatuses of political and popular edification. Here, I propose to look at the Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts in terms of its role as a microcosm of spatial history—the relationship between city and nation—and explore how the physical spaces of the museum, both architectural and exhibitory, give an account of 20th- and 21st-century Vietnamese art and history.

The building that would, in 1987, eventually become the museum was constructed between 1929 and 1934 as the Saigon headquarters of the Société Immobilière Hui Bon Hoa, which was owned by the Chinese-born businessman affectionately known as Uncle Hoa (1845–1901).1 Hoa was renowned for his wealth as one of the four richest men in Vietnam, and for his contributions to the development of important buildings and properties not only in Saigon, France’s “Pearl of the Orient,” but also throughout the colonial federation of Indochine.2 The building at 97 Rue Alsace Lorraine (now Pho Duc Chinh street) served as the family’s residence and place of business. Its architecture exemplified the style of French colonial design, an attempt to meld elements of Art Deco with local decorative motifs and spatial principles. Unfortunately, little is known about what transpired with the family as the country experienced partition into the states of North and South in 1954, full-blown warfare in the 1970s, and, finally, the fall of Saigon to northern Viet Minh forces in 1975, unifying Vietnam as a communist nation and changing the southern capitol’s name to Ho Chi Minh City.

To this day, however, rumors abound that the ghost of Hoa’s daughter haunts the former residence, an urban myth that became the subject of a 1973 film, Con Ma Nha Ho Hua (The Ghost of the Hua House).3 Yet this piece of popular folklore did not impede a new effort to revive the building’s significance in the local community in 1987, when it was established as an art museum by the Ho Chi Minh City’s People’s Committee. Following the 1986 reforms known as Doi Moi (“New Change”), which decentralized the economy and opened up numerous industries to privatization, the country began a fairly rapid entrance into neoliberal globalization. The museum was considered a vital cultural necessity for the city that served as Vietnam’s economic center, with a primary objective of responding to the needs of the community by serving as a place to engage with regional and national art history.4

But how has the museum negotiated this position, when its subaltern status already undermines its role in the eyes of official art history? The national art-historical narrative has championed the movement of art toward the embodiment of the artist as patriot, whether in the case of the artists trained at the colonial Ecole de Beaux-Arts d’Indochine, those who sketched everyday life in the trenches and on the trails of the battlefield, or the post-Doi Moi painters who have been embraced as capturing the Vietnamese soul in romantic landscapes and portraits.5 Postcolonial southern artists have been largely excluded from 20th-century Vietnamese art history, as they represent the 1954–75 period and the geographical space antithetical to socialist progress.

Negotiating the significance of southern art history in the chronology and subsequently in the manifest collection at the museum is, therefore, a murky task that remains only partially resolved with the recent inclusion of southern postcolonial abstractionists such as Ta Ty and the contemporary painters once known loosely as the Group of 10. The timeline of the museum’s modern and contemporary art collection remains roughly bifurcated into before and after 1975, following the melding of Liberation and Unification as an equivalent event overshadowing the particularities of southern regional history.

Aside from the temporal and spatial histories narrated through the objects on display, the museum’s imbrication in local contemporary art is more significant than many would assume.  As more of a physical space and less as an institution, the museum was host to numerous important works and events that shaped the development of contemporary art in Ho Chi Minh City. However, these fell under the auspices of Blue Space Contemporary Art Center, an independent platform for exhibition and exchange founded by Tran Thi Huynh Nga, the wife of esteemed painter Tran Trung Tin. In 1996, Nga rented a sub-level room at the museum in order to foster an alternative space for contemporary art in the city, and over the following decade facilitated numerous exhibitions, workshops, and performance events.

If we consider the ways in which art forms emerge according to the possibilities of built spaces, then we can think of the museum’s physical architecture as enabling numerous unprecedented artistic forms and collaborations in the city.6 The interior courtyard alone provided space for large-scale installations and performance collaborations by Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, Nguyen Minh Phuong, Ly Hoang Ly, and Anida Yoeu Esguerra—artworks that provoked attention, controversy, and misunderstanding from museum officials, local publics, and cultural authorities for their audacious efforts to push boundaries in contemporary artistic practice.

A biography of the building thus expands the importance of the site beyond its recent history as an art museum. Attending not only to the chronology of the structure as a micro-history within the stories of Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City or Vietnam, but also to the ways in which its physical shape has hosted the unfolding of these events, allows us a deeper and more nuanced understanding of a particular locale. Whether we should aim to see this example as archetypal is a question that may best be illuminated alongside other such biographies.

Pamela N. Corey is a historian of modern and contemporary art in Southeast Asia.

This article was commissioned by Asia Society Hong Kong Center as a component of their presentation of No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia.

  1. Lang Nhu, “Giai thoai ve dai gia tung so huu 20.000 can nha o Sai Gon,” (Anecdotes about the family that once owned 20,000 homes in Saigon), Good Morning Magazine, March 4, 2012, http://aejjrsite.free.fr/goodmorning/gm131/gm131_LesHuiBonHoa.pdf, accessed 2/9/2014; Tim Doling, “The Story of Saigon,” Word (February 2013), p. 44, http://www.historicvietnam.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/A-Short-History-of-Saigon.pdf, accessed 2/9/2014; Le Quang Ninh and Stéphane Dovert, Saigon, trois siècles de développement urbain (Saigon: Three Centuries of Urban Development) (Ho Chi Minh City: Nha Xuat Ban Tong Hop TP Ho Chi Minh, 2004), 120–121.
  2. Lang Nhu.
  3. Dir. Le Hoang Hoa, Con Ma Nha Ho Hua, 1973, Da Ly Huong productions.
  4. “Gioi thieu Bao tang / Introduction to the Museum,” Bao tang My thuat Thanh pho Ho Chi Minh / Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts, http://www.baotangmythuattphcm.vn/about.php, accessed 2/9/2014.
  5. See Nora Taylor, Painters in Hanoi: An Ethnography of Vietnamese Art, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004.
  6. Images and documentation relating to the programs and exhibitions of Blue Space Contemporary Art Center can be found at “Blue Space Contemporary Arts Center Archive,” Asia Art Archive, http://www.aaa.org.hk/Collection/CollectionOnline/SpecialCollectionFolder/672, accessed 2/9/2014.

How has the architecture of other museums helped shape or steer their contents?