Financial Times, March 11, 2006
By MURE DICKIE
Beijing is the artistic and political capital of one of the world's
greatest civilisations, but the city's museums have long been an
embarrassment. Visitors and citizens seeking a glimpse of China's
cultural riches must often peer through dusty glass at dimly lit and
ill-explained displays of dubious authenticity. The stink of badly
maintained toilets hangs over halls and corridors at the National
Museum, which generally does a better job of displaying its waxworks of
David Beckham and Genghis Khan than its ancient bronzes and jades. The
Palace Museum, keeper of the fabled Forbidden City, is an architectural
glory - but one that is strangely empty; officials open many of its
best-furnished chambers only to VIPs and keep all but a tiny fraction of
its treasures tucked away in underground vaults.
The shoddy state of Beijing's museums is a lingering symptom of the
contempt for the past displayed by the Communist Party after the 1949
revolution. For decades, the country's heritage was at best neglected.
And during the ultra-leftist 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, millions of
Mao-inspired Red Guards fanned out across the country destroying
anything connected with old "feudal" ways.
After abandoning Maoism in the early 1980s, the party began to see the
value in making peace with the imperial past. But budget pressures and a
focus on big-ticket tourist-attracting sites such as the Great Wall -
sections of which have been massively rebuilt - meant that the more
subtle role of museums continued to be largely overlooked.
It is not only visitors who have suffered from such neglect. Only about
a quarter of Beijing's 81 municipal and district museums have
temperature and humidity control systems, exposing countless fragile
relics to unnecessary harm. In November, a burst hot-water pipe in the
Cultural Palace of Nationalities flooded its museum and library, soaking
more than 20,000 antique books and seriously damaging one of only three
copies of a 300-year-old woodcut Buddhist scripture known as the Dazangjing.
Conservation is complicated by a constant struggle to cover costs with
ticket sales. In an interview with state media two years ago, the head
of the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Cultural Heritage blamed meagre
ticket income on residents' lack of interest in museums, but
acknowledged that such indifference was understandable. "Part of the
reason is that exhibitions in most museums are old-fashioned and dull,"
said its director Mei Ninghua.
Things are changing, however. Rapid economic growth and rising tax
income have given the government more to spend on cultural activities.
Increasingly cosmopolitan officials are determined that China should
acquire all the trappings of a modern Great Power and are no longer
willing to see its museums lag so far behind those of developed nations.
At the same time, the party's abandonment of communist ideology has left
it looking for other ways to shore up its legitimacy and maintain
national unity - and celebrating China's heritage is seen as one way to
A dramatic example of such changing attitudes is Beijing's huge new
Capital Museum, a reborn repository for the city's cultural wonders.
The museum, which opens officially in May but can already be visited by
appointment, is intended to showcase the achievements of Chinese arts
and to chart the development of Beijing itself from prehistoric times to
the present day.
It replaces the old Capital Museum, which was tucked away in small and
unsuitable halls in Beijing's Confucian Temple. In contrast, the new
purpose-built building on Beijing's main east-west artery is designed to
demand attention - and succeeds in the attempt.
It is one of a number of landmark projects around the city that were
pushed by former president Jiang Zemin, who has claimed credit by
providing the museum's signed calligraphic nameplate. While most Beijing
museums suffer from dowdy facades and gloomy rooms, the Capital Museum
boasts an enormous central lobby dominated by a sloping urn-like rotunda
faced with bronze decoration inspired by the wares of the 11th to eighth
century BC Western Zhou era. The museum's architects, the French
practice Arep and the China Architecture Design and Research Group, have
made the rotunda burst out of the building's glass-topped facade. The
wide-eved roof is inspired by traditional Chinese architecture but also
employs solar panelling that should generate up to 300kw in electricity.
Such extravagance has not come cheap or easy. The new museum cost the
Beijing government Rmb1.23bn (Pounds 86m), far above estimates, and took
a year longer than expected to build. But the result is spacious and
airy, completely different from the city's other museums.
Three permanent displays illuminate Beijing's history, urban
construction and folk customs with unusual flair, through the use of
interactive computer displays, architectural reconstructions and
large-scale models. And rotating displays, which showcase calligraphy,
painting, bronze, jade and ceramics, set new standards for the capital's
curators, not least because they are well lit and have quite detailed
Just as welcome are the Capital Museum's efforts to appeal to children
by giving them a chance to do some painting and pottery - an approach
alien to most Beijing museums. Unlike their peers at other cultural
institutions in the capital, staff also appear enthusiastic. "How do you
say 'No photographs' in English?" one attendant asks a Mandarin-speaking
The Capital Museum has its shortcomings. For sheer quality of classical
exhibits or display elan, it does not match the Shanghai Museum, which
became China's first genuinely world-class museum when it reopened in a
new building in 1996. Now in a landmark city centre building, the
Shanghai Museum has bolstered its collection with donations from wealthy
emigres and has introduced innovations such as display lights that
automatically dim when there are no visitors present.
By delving into Beijing's history and folk customs, the Capital Museum
offers a broader range of displays than its Shanghai counterpart.
However, the section on life in the capital's old hutongs, or alleys,
feels antiseptic. There is an irony about a display that celebrates the
traditional neighbourhoods that the capital is currently busy knocking
down in favour of office and apartment blocks.
Also, like all officially approved culture in China, the Capital Museum
is subject to the Communist Party's version of political correctness.
Most captions appear politically neutral, but the introduction to a
display of statues from Tibet describes them pointedly as "Chinese
Tibetan". Never mind that Chinese control since the 1950s has been a
cultural disaster for Tibet.
Such traces of propaganda are a reminder that even the most modern
Chinese museums cannot hope to become the centres of free inquiry that
they are in more liberal countries.
But China's belated enthusiasm for museums will bring some benefits. At
least the Capital Museum will give visitors a chance to engage on some
level with the extraordinary riches of the country's heritage.
Such opportunities are likely to proliferate. The State Administration
of Cultural Heritage has called for the construction of 1,000 new
museums by 2015, adding to more than 2,000 already in operation. Local
media say Beijing alone plans to build 20 museums before the 2008
Olympics. The National Museum, which is already improving its displays,
is to get a Rmb1.8bn (Pounds 126m) facelift that should at least end its
Huge challenges remain in raising the quality of research and
conservation and in finding the money to ensure so many new institutions
can survive. But there is now reason to hope that visitors to Beijing's
museums - from within China or abroad - will be able to enjoy some of
the riches of the capital's heritage.
Mure Dickie is an FT correspondent in Beijing.
with kind regards,
Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)
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