Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Cultural revolution

A museum-building boom in China

China’s Shanxi province, south-west of Beijing,
represents the seamy underbelly of modern Chinese prosperity: coal, corruption, pollution and deadly mine collapses. But it has a rich and ancient history, and in 2013, at great expense, several museums under construction and designed by some of the world’s most famous architects, including Sir Norman Foster, will attempt to show that off.

The Foster-designed Datong Art Museum, centrepiece of the city of Datong’s $500m cultural development project, is an exemplar of a museum-building boom in China that, like most things China does, dwarfs any other on the planet. The country averaged a new museum opening each day in 2011 to bring China’s total number of museums to 3,415, far ahead of the pace needed to reach a goal of 3,500 museums by 2015 as prescribed in the national five-year plan (yes, communist central planning extends even to museums).

Careerism and vanity have helped drive this boom. Civic improvements figure in evaluations of local officials, says Pan Shouyong, a professor of anthropology and museum studies at Minzu University of China. Some of the extravagances are of dubious civic value. The Yellow River Arts Centre in Yinchuan, the capital of one of China’s poorest provinces, Ningxia, is to cost $280m. Scheduled for construction in 2013, it will be part of a large real-estate development; as Mr Pan suggests, museums can raise nearby property values.

But some are very good (and surprising) indeed. In his living room in Shanghai, Yang Shaorong displays his collection of thousands of pairs of three-inch shoes for women with bound feet. Miriam Clifford, a co-author of “China: Museums”, an indispensable guide, urges that adventurers seek out the Funerary Horses Museum of the Eastern Zhou, in a rural village in Shandong province, where some 600 horses were sacrificed (probably drugged and buried alive) to join a Qi dynasty king in the afterlife.

For political reasons museums do a ghastly job of more recent history. The National Museum of China, next to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, won’t educate visitors about the worst depredations of Mao’s rule, nor about the tanks that rolled into the square in 1989.

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