Saturday, 5 March 2011

National Museum of China reopens

The National Museum of China reopened to the public this week, following a three and a half year renovation which cost an eye-watering 2.5 billion RMB (about 234 million pounds). Actually, the current 'soft opening' is for tour groups only.  Normal tourists will be able to go in after the official reopening on April 1st.

The museum, known in Chinese as the 中国国家博物馆 (Zhongguo guojia bowuguan), is an iconic structure in Beijing, occupying one side of Tiananmen Square.  See the official website here.

The museum was constructed in 1959, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the coming to power of the Chinese Communist Party.  It was actually an amalgamation of two museums – the Museum of Chinese History and the Museum of the Chinese Revolution.  These two subjects still form the basis of the new exhibitions, though the display space has nearly tripled in size to include 49 display rooms, including spaces dedicated to accepting temporary displays from Asia, Africa, Europe and America.

The collections have also expanded, with more than 390,000 objects from other museums transferred to bring the total up to 1.05 million.  Beijing is claiming that this is now the world’s biggest museum, though such statistics in the museum world are rarely quantifiable and little more than meaningless PR soundbites.  Museums should be judged on what they do with their collections and the difference they can make to the lives of their audiences rather than on numerical object counts or floor area.  What is certain is that this is a collection, and an institution, that will expect to have an impact on the world stage.  Major initial opening exhibitions with loans coming from Germany and Peru clearly mark that ambition.

It is expected that visitor figures will rise to three times those the previous museum saw – with 8 to 10 million domestic and international visitors expected per year.  The basic museum will be free to enter, with some special exhibitions charged for – a standard business model for national museums in England.

As with other recent Chinese museum projects, I fully expect the renovation to look stunning – the Chinese museum industry has proved that when it comes to throwing money at things to make them look good, it needs no lessons from anybody.  As for the interpretation of the displays, and whether the narrative is a fair reflection of history, or a biased ‘party line’, I will reserve judgement until I am able to visit and see for myself, which hopefully won’t be too far in the future.

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