Friday, 25 November 2011

Displaying the Dragon – The new National Museum of China

The National Museum of China (中国国家博物馆) reopened in April 2011 after a 3½ year, £234m redevelopment.  I blogged about it here at the time.  I said in that piece that I’d reserve judgement about the museum and its contents until I’d had a chance to visit it for myself – and now I have.

We decided to get to the museum as it opened at 9 o’clock on a lovely early November morning and thankfully, despite the sea of tour group flags littering Tiananmen Square, queues to get into the museum were short.

The first thing to say about the museum is that the façade is impressive, in an angular sort of way.  Built as one of the ‘Ten Famous Architectures’ in 1959, it’s a building that you are supposed to be in awe of rather than in love with, and in that aim it succeeds.

Sadly, although the architecture provides for a large open space in front of the museum, this also seems to exist only to look impressive, as the public are kept very pointedly away from it.  British Museum or Louvre-esque scenes of tourists milling in front of the grand entrance, taking photos and mingling with their fellow visitors are not part of the design.  Instead, visitors are funnelled through a little side passage, virtually single file, before emerging into a confusing ticketing area.

Ahead of us we could clearly see the queue to get into the museum so we duly went to join it, only to be told that we actually needed to go back to the ticket office, hidden around the corner from where we entered and with no signage at all to highlight its existence.  ‘But it’s a free museum, isn’t it?’ we muttered as we headed into the ticket office.  Inside, Chinese tourists were having to show their Registration cards, and we were asked to show our passports.  However, much to our bemusement, we didn’t need to actually hand them over or even open them before being handed our tickets.  Obviously the museum has little faith in Chinese border control!

So, with free and pointless ticket in hand, we proceeded back to the queue, and awaited being allowed in through the doors to the security check.

Now, security checks in museums are something that I find vaguely annoying.  Different countries have different ideas about how much of a risk is faced by cultural institutions, and I for one am thankful that the UK has adopted a sensible approach – only really pulling out the visible security when the threat level is high.  Other places (I’m looking at you, Paris) seem to think that every museum needs metal detectors at every door, every day of the year.

The Chinese National Museum, however, raises the bar somewhat.  The obligatory metal detector for bags and the pat down are fairly standard, but this seemed to be some kind of show of authority as the female staff got very up-close and personal, subjecting every bulge to close scrutiny (I kid you not).  Seriously, the world’s toughest airport security has nothing on this museum and it can only be intended to intimidate.  It would genuinely put me off visiting again.

So I confess to being slightly peeved by the time I eventually entered the museum proper, to be faced with the orientation from hell…

We already knew that we wouldn’t have time to visit all of the museum, so had to choose our galleries carefully.  A look at the orientation board made us decide to focus on the ‘Ancient China’ and awkwardly named ‘Road of Rejuvenation’ galleries, as these are the major chronological galleries focussing on the history of China rather than the outside world or temporary exhibitions.  Hopefully I’ll be able to fill in some of the others on another visit.

Our first challenge was to actually find where any of the galleries were off the large entrance hall.  Shops we could see, but signs telling us where the objects were seemed conspicuous by their absence.  Eventually, we stumbled across an escalator going down, and after wandering through a range of strange, empty, corridors, emerged in a large foyer that marked the start of the Ancient China galleries.

My first thought was how strangely old-fashioned everything felt, and as I progressed through the chronologically arranged rooms, I became disturbed by the complete lack of variety in any of the displays.  The Ancient China Galleries are HUGE – room after room after room of displays covering China’s long and fascinating history, but they are all absolutely identical.

The display cases are high quality, and all follow the same clean design.  The ceilings are high, with visible air handling, and the tall walls painted plain white.  The limited interpretative text on the walls is provided on small, plain, cream panels with no images, just black text.  The case interiors all have bevelled cream-painted plinths with small white labels giving the object name, date and provenance (albeit in Chinese and English).  I suppose if I were being kind I’d say it was neat, but I couldn’t help feeling that it was a rather monochrome way to present some of the finest objects that Chinese archaeology has to offer.  Where are the large scale wall graphics, splashes of colour on walls and floors to differentiate different periods or recurring themes running throughout the galleries?  Where are the reconstructions showing how objects looked when complete, or providing context for their use?  Where is the sense of challenging the public or invoking a sense of discovery about objects whose function is less than certain?

The objects are presented as things to be held in awe, rather than as vehicles to tell the human stories behind them.  Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with museums highlighting the aesthetic qualities of objects, but when museums across the world have repeatedly demonstrated the power of historical objects to inspire people, it seems a travesty to spend so much money and produce something with so little personality.  It is designed to impress, when it would have been better designed to inspire.  ‘Institutional’ is a word that it is very difficult to shake off.

It was interesting to note that as we progressed through the Ancient China Galleries, the crowds became notably thinner.  I can’t imagine that this is entirely due to visitors having a passion for the Western Zhou Dynasty and less interest in the Ming or Qing Dynasties, and some of it surely has to be ascribed to gallery fatigue – not helped by the monotonous design.

The galleries also fall into the trap that every Chinese museum I have ever visited falls into – telling the story of the big Dynasties, but casually omitting the ‘messy’ histories in between.  The trouble is that those periods of war, uprising and political turmoil are some of the most fascinating of all.  Whether their omission is the result of a decision to only show an image of a stable and peaceful past, or because it is felt that it is too difficult to explain to the public is something I still can’t decide.

The staffing is another interesting issue.  Now, feel free to accuse me of having a parochial attitude here, but I have always thought that the role of gallery staff was first and foremost to enrich people’s experiences.  To help visitors locate things in the gallery and to engage with them about the contents of the museum.  Of course, they also have an important security role to play, and in a National museum this is absolutely right, but I can’t help feeling that the staff here (and in fact in pretty much every national museum) don’t see their role as one of interpreter.

Despite the rather negative comments I’ve just made, I want to reiterate here that the objects in the galleries are for the most part really rather special (despite their being more replicas than I expected), and it seems that a tour of pretty much every other Chinese museum has been made, with objects cherry picked for highlighting in the national museum.  Below are some of my favourites for your delectation.

Upon leaving the gallery (and being presented with another shop), the orientation problems sadly reared their ugly head again.  We were faced with two staircases going up in opposite directions, one signposted ‘east hall’, the other ‘west hall’.  Unfortunately, we had no idea what the content of either of these halls was, or which hall we had originally entered from.  We guessed at the east hall, but this staircase only led us to a locked door and the distinct feeling that we had guessed wrong…

Having found our way back to the main hall, we headed to the second gallery of our visit – ‘The Road of Rejuvenation’.

This gallery deals with 20th and 21st Century China, and basically charts the rise and accomplishments of the Communist Party.  In fact, a catchier title for the gallery may well have been ‘Why the CCP Rocks’.

I confess that I expected this gallery to be a rather ridiculous pat on the back for the CCP, but to be honest it wasn’t overly cringe-worthy.  Of course, every chance was taken to prod at the ‘foreign powers’ being the cause of all of China’s ills – for instance:

“After Britain started the Opium War in 1840, the imperial powers descended on China like a swarm of bees, looting our treasures and killing our people.  They forced the Qing government to sign a series of unequal treaties that granted them economic, political and cultural privileges and sank China gradually into a semi-colonial, semi-feudal society.”

Basically, China was great until those nasty foreigners came along and made us backwards, and it wasn’t until the Communist party appeared that China started to become strong and proud again.

People will no doubt criticise the museum for not making a big feature of events such as Tiananmen Square in 1989, and whilst it is true that I could find no mention of that event, there is really no reason why it should feature heavily.  Would a gallery on 20th Century American history be expected to dwell heavily on the LA riots in 1992 or a British one on the miners’ strikes?

Design-wise, the gallery thankfully had a lot more variety than the Ancient China galleries, with large wall graphics, photographs, vehicles, flags and the like adding some much needed colour.  The huge artistic wall installation in the entrance is particularly impressive.

It got me, as an archaeologist, wondering why the museum’s ‘ancient’ objects should be presented in such a plain display, yet modern social history is allowed to be so vibrant.  Is it through some misguided sense that the ancient past was more serious, or should be treated with sombre reverence?

So, in summary the museum is a strange mixture of great objects, unsubtle propaganda, varied design aesthetics and ridiculous security.  It’s undeniably impressive as a focus of national pride directed at the people, but I can’t help feeling that I would have liked it more if they had tried to make a museum for the people instead.

No comments:

Post a Comment