Monday, December 30, 2013

China is building thousands of new museums, but how will it fill them?

THE RED BRICK CONTEMPORARY ART MUSEUM can be found beyond Beijing’s fifth ring road, in an area so recently urbanised it is still called Hegezhuang Village. The street up to it is wide and dusty. Opposite, two dogs lie panting outside the Orchard restaurant where workmen have put down their trowels and are sipping tea in the midday heat. Despite the unpromising setting, the museum looks as if it had been lowered into place that very morning. The brickwork is shiny, the yellow lettering bright. Inside the air-conditioning hums throughout the seven exhibition spaces and all the lights are on. Yet, except for a handful of works in one small corner near the entrance, the museum has absolutely nothing on display. It is like walking into an empty Olympic swimming pool.

China new museums
The Red Brick was completed more than a year ago by an up-and-coming property developer, Yan Zhijie, from Xingtai, a small town about 350km south-west of Beijing. It exemplifies what Jeffrey Johnson, director of Columbia University’s China Megacities Lab, calls the “museumification” of China: a building boom so frothy it is running away with itself. Not just in Beijing and Shanghai but also in the second- and third-tier cities beyond, new museums are hatching out every day, many of them still without collections and curators. “We’ve seen museum-building booms elsewhere,” Mr Johnson says, “but nothing of this sustained magnitude and pace.”

In 1949, when the Communist Party took control, China had just 25 museums. Many were burned down during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 and their collections dispersed. But the rapid growth and urbanisation that accompanied Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening up” policies after 1978 also launched a museum-building boom that did far more than simply replace what had been lost. Every provincial capital now seems to be constructing a new museum, or upgrading one it has already. This is seen as a good way to kickstart a cultural programme, even if the building has nothing to display for a while. Rich Chinese collectors are also putting up private museums to show off their treasures.

China new museums
According to the current five-year plan, China was to have 3,500 museums by 2015, a target it achieved three years early. Last year a record 451 new museums opened, pushing the total by the end of 2012 to 3,866, says An Laishun, vice-president of the China Museums Association. By contrast, in America only 20-40 museums a year were built in the decade before the 2008 financial crash.

China new museums (project)
Public museums have not traditionally been part of Chinese culture. The great imperial collections of Chinese jade, cloisonné and porcelain were kept in the Summer Palace in Beijing’s Forbidden City and seen by only a chosen few. In 1948-49, after the Japanese invasion and the outbreak of civil war, Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang forces shipped 230,000 of the best pieces to Taiwan, where they remained after the communists gained power on the mainland. Some of what was left behind can still be seen today in the National Museum in Beijing, but no museum in China has anything like the treasures in the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

(read the full article here)

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