x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

China’s new cultural revolution is all about museums

All across the country, in towns and cities, big and small, museums are being built at a rate of over 100 a year as the government attempts to demonstrate to audiences at home and abroad that there is more to China — now the world’s second-largest economy — than its economic clout.

Zhu Cheng, the founder of the Chan Sock Museum in Huashi. Hannah Gardner for The National
Zhu Cheng, the founder of the Chan Sock Museum in Huashi. Hannah Gardner for The National

HUASHI, CHINA // A little more than a year ago, Huashi, a township of 90,000 people in China’s eastern Jiangsu province, had no museums.

Given its size and the fact that it had no particular claim to fame, that was not surprising.

Today, however, it has four.

“Before, we were focused on building our economy,” said Shen Lei, the manager of one of the museums, the Tianhua museum of traditional Chinese medicine. “Now we are being encouraged to consider other things such as quality of life.”

And Huashi is not alone in this respect.

All across the country, in towns and cities, big and small, museums are being built at a rate of more than 100 a year as the government attempts to demonstrate to audiences at home and abroad that there is more to China – now the world’s second-largest economy– than its economic clout.

The figures that motivate China’s communist government are these. Citizens per museum in the United States: 17,000. Citizens per museum in China: 332,000.

But even as China motors towards its goal of one museum per 250,000 people by 2020, concerns are growing that country simply does not have the expertise, the demand or even the contents to justify such a rapid and massive expansion.

“Our hardware is good,” said Lu Jiansong, a professor of museology and cultural heritage at Shanghai’s Fudan University, referring to the fact that many of China’s new museums’ exteriors are designed by award-winning architects. “It’s our software which is problematic.”

Take the recent case of a museum of imperial art in Erpu village in China’s northern province of Hebei for example. More than Dh323 million was spent procuring artefacts, only for it to be discovered last month that almost all of them were fakes. One vase labelled as being 800 years old was found to be decorated with small green cartoon characters.

Or the National Museum in Beijing, which used mostly copies and mock-ups in its first big exhibition on modern Chinese history, called Road to Rejuvenation, in 2011.

The museum had been closed for the previous 10 years for a Dh1.47 billion extension, to turn it into one of the world’s largest museums under one roof.

Part of the reason, experts say, is that China has lost many of its best artefacts to foreign looters or destroyed them itself during the multiple revolutions of the past century.

Another problem is that museums are subject to censorship in the same way that books and films are.

Road to Rejuvenation, though it was meant to cover the past 150 years of Chinese history, ignored two periods — the Cultural Revolution and the famine following the Great Leap Forward, in which tens of million died.

“Museums are propaganda vehicles in China. These events portray the party in bad light, so they are not included,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of the political science department at Hong Kong’s Baptist University.

So if large chunks of history are off limits and other periods can only be seen through the prism of accepted political thinking, what are all of the new museums going to contain?

If the new examples in Huashi are anything to go by, they will be bland and empty.

Socks, traditional medicine, old furniture and the story of a prosperous local village are the non-controversial subjects covered by the four multimillion-dollar projects.

Yet, despite their non-political content, all four offer a nationalist spin on their exhibits.

“Many sock labels from the early 1900s showed Chinese companies’ anger at the foreign occupation of Shanghai,” said Liu Guomeng, the curator at the China sock museums said in front of a display of old sock tags.

It is certainly true, but when pressed to explain why he had not offered as much detail about the ration book from the late fifties or poor quality socks from the era of the Cultural Revolution, the answer is: “We don’t aim to be comprehensive.”

It is hard to draw a link between low visitor numbers and museums’ unwillingness to ditch the official script but one imagines that more analysis and fact and less patriotic schmaltz might attract more people.

“China may be flush with new, ambitious museums, but in addition to having lacklustre collections, these museums, particularly public ones, lag behind their global peers in offering education programmes, training, professional consultancy, and support for academic research,” said a recent report by the Munich-based strategy consultants, Roland Berger.

“Failure to do so, has resulted in a disconnect between them and the public they are meant to serve,” it added.

That certainly seems to be the case in Huashi. Despite it being the school summer holidays, three of the museums were empty when The National visited.

At the 2,500-square-metre medicine museum, the caretaker, Fei Hongxiong, had turned all the lights off and gone to sleep at about 2 in the afternoon.

“We don’t get many visitors,” he said. “Maybe you need to write about us so we get more.”

foreign.desk@thenational.ae