What a surprise this place is. You’d never guess that the rather drearily titled Municipal History Museum beneath the Oriental Pearl Tower provides such a wonderful and imaginative experience. Some people find it more funny than the tower itself,and it certainly provides a great contrast between the modern Shanghai seen from the Tower and the experience of old Shanghai below it.
Of course, Shanghai does have an exciting and interesting history. Here in the basement of the Oriental Pearl Tower the old city has been recreated, with an emphasis on the period between 1860 and 1949. For much of the time you are ‘in’ the streets, walking past or through everyday sights, and hearing the sounds. Sometimes life-size, sometimes scaled down, the streets and buildings are peopled with incredibly life-like models, and the re-creations are immaculate. Scenes include the ‘fun’ life of farmers (anything but!) and fishers, traditional stores, bars, the stock exchange, medicine shops, teahouse, a courtroom and even a beheading. Here are dioramas of the river, the foreign concessions, the main streets, a video of the old racetrack, and along the way some genuine relics of the past, along with photos, film, and paintings.
In the first part of the museum there’s a wonderful transport collection – old trams (complete with life-size models of passengers and driver), rickshaws, a US Army jeep and vintage and veteran cars. Then follows several halls with dioramas, and evocations of the history of the city, some so well done that it’s hard to tell where reality begins and ends (people have been known to smile and nod to the barman!); foreign traders, opium and war, and daily life in the streets, all from the local perspective. The final section is a series of scale models of famous old buildings.
It takes at least an hour to walk through the imaginative displays and exhibits, (the area covers around and it’s an unforgettable experience, which can be enjoyed by the whole family. Audio guides are available, but information is provided in English as well as Chinese along the way.