Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Size or Truth: What Matters Most for a Renovated Museum in China

I want to share some excerpts and thoughts on an article at The New York Times about the renovated National Museum of China in Beijing.  They highlight how the Chinese Government's desire to impress China's citizens and the world can trump any desire to share the full truth.

In a previous post, I shared Hong Kong writer Chung Wah Chow's comment that many museums in China strictly followed a single template for their design -- often leading to uncreative results (and in my opinion a few too many ineffective dioramas).  According to the NYT article a broader range of experts was apparently consulted for the National Museum of China's renovation.  Unfortunately, it may have had more of an impact on ensuring the museum would be the biggest than the museum presenting Chinese history truthfully and proportionally.  A European museum director recalls his conversations with those involved in renovating the Chinese museum:
“I got a call asking how many square meters is the Louvre,” recalled Martin Roth, director of Dresden’s state museums and an informal consultant to the museum for a decade. “Then 10 minutes later another call asking how many square meters is the British Museum. I said, ‘You guys are sitting with the architects and are figuring out how to be the biggest, right?’ They laughed and said yes."
“We feel we had a lot to show and need the space,” Mr. Tian said. “It’s not about being the biggest, but China does have 5,000 years of culture so it’s not inappropriate to be the biggest.”
Size being important for a project in China is not so surprising.  Yet, all that space, all that history, and:
Officials rejected proposals for a permanent historical exhibition that would have discussed the disasters of early Communist rule — especially the Great Leap Forward, a political campaign and resulting famine that killed more than 20 million. Some organizers also wanted a candid appraisal of the Cultural Revolution, a decade-long attack on traditional culture and learning, but that effort was squashed. 
One professor in China voiced his displeasure with the newly renovated museum:
“It ignores the conflicts, which real history shouldn’t do,” said an archaeology professor at Peking University who asked to remain anonymous because of the issue’s delicacy. “This is why I would not call this exhibition real history but propaganda.”
This brings to mind an incredible series of posts by Xujun Eberlein about the search for truth regarding America's involvement in China in the post-WWII years (I highly recommend reading it).  In part, it shares how propaganda can persist in China -- both in people's minds and at historical sites -- even when some experts in China know the truth.

I've commented in the past that my more positive impression of an art museum in Hanoi, Vietnam than of many similar city art museums in China may have been reflective of the choices of the museums' curators.  The NYT article highlights the value of curators in a quote about the National Museum of China:
“What they need are passionate curators to go into those bronzes and textiles and find new interpretations,” Ms. Murck said. “Because a great museum depends on a great curatorial staff.”
However, even if China has great curators it might not always matter.  For example, the National Museum of China curators and other experts had their suggestions overruled by various Chinese officials, including those in the Ministry of Culture.

For now, the Chinese Government seems most concerned that one of its showcase museums is the biggest in the world and paints a rosy picture of China.  It is ironic that in its quest to improve its image in the world with a renovated museum, China has effectively highlighted one of the issues which cause many around the world to perceive it negatively in the first place -- China's inability in many situations to provide a balanced and accurate account of its history and current events.

When China can more openly confront its warts, its genuine achievements will be better recognized and appreciated by the world.


  1. as I've maintained throughout my time in China; when the Chinese willingly remove Chairman Mao from every denomination (but the smallest, of course) of paper currency, we will see that they are at least "ok with" some semblance of "losing face." Until then, propaganda continues.

    Oh, and one other thing. I hate to burst your bubble, but your "deep conversations" were probably nothing more than the Chinese individuals "sizing you up." Fodder for their later drinking stories. ;)

  2. jvincentnix, no worries, no bubble bursted. In conducting ethnographic/field research I am well aware of the potential pitfalls of cross-cultural research in any country and do my best to both remove my own biases and other "interference" such as you describe. As with any research methodology there are limitations and errors can be made, hence the benefit of applying multiple methodologies and replication.

    Regardless, to properly address your worries, were there any comments in particular that struck you as suspicious or problematic?

  3. Also, just to be clear... The above post was mostly my thoughts on the NYTimes article. I don't refer to any "deep conversations" with any Chinese. I do reference Chung Wah Chow's (from Hong Kong) comments but given her professional role as a writer and her permission to use her quotes I am confident she wasn't "sizing me up". I assume your comments refer in general to other posts I've written. In that case, the above comment still holds.