Reviewed February 2020
L.E. Eames, Instruction Librarian
University of Colorado, Colorado Springs
The Digital Museum of Shadow grew from a donation to the China Academy of Art (CAA) of more than 47,000 items related to shadow performance more available. “Shadow,” variously translated as “shadow & lamp” or “leather-silhouette show,” refers both to the physical puppet and to the mode of performance which includes music, song, and speech. To capture the breadth of this form, the collection of the Digital Museum of Shadow includes photographs of items from the CAA collection, video examples of contemporary and classical performance, oral histories, academic lectures, and secondary readings at various levels. In structure, it is not dissimilar to the NYPL Jerome Robbins Dance Division Digital Collection with more secondary, interpretive content.
The Museum’s materials are freely and openly available thanks in part to the support of China’s Ministry of Education. In concept, it is very similar to the Taiwan Memory Project Digital Photo Museum. It also faces some of the same design problems. This wealth of content in the Digital Museum of Shadow is obscured by the site’s frustrating design. The slow-to-load homepage includes a carousel of images with headers that do not lead to any content. The introduction describing the history and purpose of the collection is found in a pop up window opened by clicking on an inconspicuous button at the bottom of the page. The collection itself is buried almost at the bottom of the main menu. Individual pages, furthermore, fail accessibility checks in some very important ways. Many of the text-heavy pages lack solid color backgrounds. With either abstract designs or ghostly letters behind the text that is meant to be read, the contrast between text and background is reduced, rendering the pages more difficult for low vision users. The pages also lack coded structure, such as headers, which makes the site very difficult for screen readers to interface with.
The organization of content is further complicated by linguistic barriers. While the Museum offers nine language options, only the introductory information is translated. The collection items, scholarly materials, and some section titles are only provided in Mandarin. The video content is provided in Mandarin without subtitles or transcription. That said, even for a Mandarin-speaking audience, the organization of the menu which places the museum elements near the bottom would be a user experience issue.
The introductory material sometimes assumes an awareness of the form of shadow performance, which belies the purpose of the project to raise interest and awareness. Of the translated sections, the sections dealing with “Making” and “[Regional] Characteristics” make the best use of the digital museum format. Whereas in other sections images are presented without context or description, in the “Making” section text, images, and video work together to explain the process. Though the video material is in Mandarin, simply seeing the creation process in action provides additional clarity and understanding. In “Characteristics,” the regional variations are clearly delineated. While this section might benefit from some example images or a map, the text is presented at a level that aligns with the goals of the project: to expand the knowledge of non-experts.
Advanced students of the Mandarin language would likely benefit most from this resource. The oral histories, performance videos, and lecture recordings provide the opportunity to practice listening comprehension while learning about various regional interpretations of this Chinese cultural patrimony. Researchers in Theatre and Performance Studies or East Asian Languages and Cultures with the necessary language skills would also find the collection and its accompanying scholarly content a valuable collection of resources. The format of a digital museum compliments the desire to connect contemporary and historic practice of shadow performance by providing an open access foundation that permits different media types to be seamlessly joined. These points of synergy are, however, disrupted by some aspects of the experience of using the site.