The challenge of filling China’s new museums

1956 Telegraph & Argus cutting ed

Paul Harris (extreme left), author of this post, pictured in 1956 at the Cartwright Memorial Hall Museum, Bradford, before a working model of a Victorian invention. Cutting/picture courtesy The Telegraph & Argus

It is hardly a challenge faced by museum curators in the West, where basement storerooms and dusty attics are crammed with a myriad of currently unfashionable exhibits: stuffed birds and preserved fish, oil paintings of morose Highland cattle, World War II gas masks, working models of minor 19th century inventions, and the like. Decades, if not hundreds of years, of collecting, and of dedicated collectors turned benefactors, have stuffed museums to bursting point. In continental Europe, the tides of war have tended to clear out the stockrooms on occasion, but in the UK, particularly, the stuff has built up and, occasionally, selections are made for some new thematic presentation. In the face of pressures of space and cash, acquisitions run at a relatively modest level.

In sharp contrast is the situation of new museums in China. And there are an awful lot of them sprouting up. In 1949, when China came under control of the Communist Party, there were just 25 museums and many were burned down or otherwise destroyed during the period of the Cultural Revolution between1966 and 1976. But during the period of growth that accompanied Deng Xiaoping and his policies in the 1980s, there came a new emphasis on cultural development which has gathered pace in recent years. In 2009, a State Council meeting upgraded culture to the status of a strategic industry. ‘Culture is the spirit and the soul of the nation,’ it was pronounced. Culture was described as a ‘pillar industry’ which, in Chinese terminology, means an industry which will contribute at least 5% of GDP.

According to the most recent five year plan for 2011-15, China was to have 3,500 museums by 2015: that target was achieved two years early. By the end of 2012, there were 3,886 museums, with new ones being added at the rate of one a day. Overwhelmingly, they chronicle the proud history and achievements of Chinese civilisation (although not exclusively, The Economist [December 14 2013] reports that there are two new museums of plastination, or polymer preserved bodies, in Dalian and Chongqing). We all know, and may have visited, some of the more outstanding new establishments like The Shanghai Museum (fabulous) and the display of the terracotta warriors, near to Xian. But the ultimate objective is for every city with more than a quarter of a million people (that’s small for China) to have its own world class museum.


The magnificent Shanghai Museum, 2012   Photo Paul Harris

Such has been the speed with which these new museums have been created, that there are currently substantial difficulties in actually filling them: either with exhibits or people. Of course, there’s not much point in going to a museum which has little, or nothing, on offer. The insane depredations of the Red Guard meant that private collections of porcelain and other art were looted, smashed and lost for ever; many museums were simply burnt down. They provided a spectacular opportunity to get rid of an awful lot of decadent material in one go.

There were other dramatic losses. Previous to all this, in 1948-49, as they lost the civil war, Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang forces shipped an estimated 230,000 of the best pieces of Chinese art off to Taiwan. They remain there to this day and are rotated through the National Palace Museum in Taipei. The National Palace hosts indubitably the best collection of Chinese art in the world and the National Museum in Beijing still has a lot of catching up to do.

We (Chinese Art in Scotland) recently bid on a rather attractive piece of purple-splashed jun ware, estimated in a provincial English auction room at just a few hundred pounds. What set it apart from other pieces of jun ware, which is oft copied today, was the box it came in and which bore the Kuomintang label and stamps and a label inscribed by the Nanjing Museum Protection Committee, which had received the residual Imperial collection after the Japanese invasion in the 1930s. We took the bidding to £8,000 and then allowed it to go back to mainland China where, hopefully, it might end up in a museum.

The requirement for objects to exhibit in all these new museums is one of the factors which have fuelled the boom in the Chinese art market. New museums are not just looking for the best and most expensive. They must also have examples to illustrate more modest, or currently less sought after, genres. Auctioneers in the UK provinces who mount Asian sales will regale you with stories of the minibuses full of Chinese buyers who descend on any decent auction. At the sale, far from forming a ring, they will often energetically bid against each other. These men are agents who may be buying for museums, private buyers or, simply, for themselves as enthusiasts or dealers. If they are agents, they are on commission and the higher the prices go, the more cheerful the day becomes.

However, the rush to fill China’s museums can sometimes develop into indecent and ill-considered haste. In June 2013, the Jibaozhai Museum, located in Jizou, a city in the northern Chinese province of Hebei, was rather suddenly closed down. The museum had been finished in 2010 at a construction cost of 60 million yuan (£6.4m. sterling, around US$10m.) and its 12 large exhibition halls were packed with some 40,000 objects. But a Chinese writer, Ma Boyong, paid a visit in 2013 and posted online doubts about some of the exhibits. He noted a piece, allegedly 4,000 years old dating to the time of the Yellow Emperor, which bore writing in simplified Chinese characters, which only came into use in the 20th century.

There was also a ‘Tang Dynasty’ five colour porcelain vase. This was rather extraordinary as the technique was only developed many hundreds of years later, during the Ming Dynasty. But, perhaps most remarkable of all, was a ‘Qing vase’ embellished with distinctly modern cartoon characters . . .

The museum’s chief consultant, Wei Yingjun, made the startling, if self deprecating, assertion that he was ‘quite positive’ that at least 80 of the Museum’s 40,000 objects had been confirmed as authentic. Mr Shao Baoming, the deputy curator, sought to correct this statement, maintaining that ‘at least half of the exhibits’ were authentic. The owner, Mr Wang Zonquan, apparently also local Communist Party leader, seemed rather more philosophical. ‘Even the gods cannot tell whether the exhibits are fake or not.’

hubei museum exhibit

Pictured at the Jibaozhai Museum in 2013, a most unusual Qing vase

Outside observers reckon that the Museum had been filled with cheap copies available on the internet at between 200 and 2,000 yuan (around £20-200). Not even sourced as far away as those auctions in the West . . .


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