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Businessmen star in new Chinese museum

Can a country once devoid of great museums successfully develop a museum culture?

Beijing now has one museum housing diplomatic gifts, another on the history of beekeeping. There is a police museum, a currency museum, a eunuch museum and a public safety museum. There is one on a particular style of wood carvings, another on porcelain, yet another on bonsai tree cultivation. Given that this is a country with a few thousand years’ history and a modern penchant for mowing much of it down at rapid pace, there seems no shortage of new items to place inside protective walls.

It is a development that Yang Nan, a Beijing anthropology professor who specializes in history and museums, finds both exhilarating and frustrating. Yang, who considers the Shanghai Museum to be China’s best example of design and content, said too many museums are charging too much money and that high entry fees will discourage visitors. Though China now has a multitude of museums, it does not have a popular culture of visiting them to learn. Cutting entry fees, he said, would change that.

“China needs to develop a museum culture,” Yang said. “The government should allocate enough money for public museums and they shouldn’t be profit-making endeavors.”

The businessman museum does get some government support, its director said, but only after private donations to set up the entire project and much proof that it had a valid collection.

Getting the right mix of entry fees, visitor numbers and content to make self-supporting museums will take time. Free museums can also create problems, as Hubei province learned. There, local media reported, a new museum had to shut down after two days because the unexpected heavy traffic ruined its toilets.

“It’s hard to say if we need to build any more museums,” Yang said. “In the long run, they might not be able to maintain them.”

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