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Where Is The Road? The Development of Chinese Museums in a Market Economy

Yin Tongyun
Researcher
Chinese History Museum

As a staff member at a museum, I have over the years been able to attend all sorts of exhibitions without charge, a steady perquisite in a not-so-generous profession. Yet, starting from I'm not sure when, this tiny "prerogative" has been subject to more and more restrictions.

First it was the "Masterpieces from Dunhuang" exhibition in 1997, which set the capital humming with excitement. The exorbitant ticket price implied a high level of commercial profit; therefore, a tightening in the liberal allowances for free admittance was also unavoidable. Under the premise of not influencing the exhibition's take, museum staff were only allowed to attend the exhibition for free on a certain day after working hours. The intoxication of the exquisitely subtle postures of the Dunhuang figures was also gradually diminished by the awkwardness of this "special treatment." In the blistering heat of July, I made arrangements with friends who had traveled from afar to see the exhibition of Qingzhou Buddhist statuary. The work ID which had up to then provided unhindered access to the museum was rebuffed with the single phrase, "This is a commercial exhibition." It was not really that there was no way to bear the cost of the 20-yuan ticket, but the thickening scent of commerce was a bit hard to get used to.

Chinese civilization has a history of 5000 years of development, with sites of cultural relics too numerous to mention. Presently, such sites alone number more than 400,000 throughout the country, yet museums devoted to the care and display of this age-old tradition are "imported goods," only appearing in the modern era, and moreover have developed relatively slowly. To take Gansu alone as an example, there are altogether 13,603 cultural sites of all types throughout the province, but only 58 museums and 4 memorial halls. The 200 million yuan raised each year by the National Bureau of Cultural Relics is, with regard to the multitude of varied organs devoted to the preservation of cultural relics, "a little gruel for too many monks," akin to using a cup of water to put out a cartload of burning wood. Since the beginning of the Reform Era, the economic sphere has developed with stunning rapidity, evolving with each passing day, offering great opportunities for the field of cultural relics in China, but also bringing considerable pressures. Inadequacy of funds has left some museums with no way to update facilities, making it difficult to meet the requirements of contemporary technological developments. Yet the addition of a few new archaeological discoveries ensure that excavated artifacts cannot be properly preserved, also owing to financial restrictions. The slogan "When culture takes the stage, the economy plays the tune" has momentarily become a protective umbrella for official agencies charged with the preservation of cultural relics under which to pursue economic profit. Sites with relics have been forced to become bound together with tourist facilities. Superstitious practices along the lines of drawing divinatory lots or seeking the remedies of charlatans have also appeared at some museums. At the most extreme, some museums have forsaken unprofitable exhibitions and have rented out exhibition halls, using these to engage in commerce. If one says that this is merely a minor brouhaha, then I would reply that in the past two years a few regions have taken to calling cultural sites "tourism capital." Units dealing with cultural relics have become tourist enterprises, have organized corporations, and have planned to issue stocks and bonds, thus directly turning their backs on the national policy, "Preservation is the mainstay, and rescue the first priority."

Cultural relics are the bearers of history and culture; they are mutually related to a nation and to its people's spirit and consciousness. Viewed in this way, cultural relics belong to neither official organ or individual; they are first of all a nation's and people's. As media for the transmission of history and culture, and as key mechanisms for the preservation of cultural relics, museums are organizations devoted to the public good, and must also first and foremost serve the public. Compared to the public good, economic benefit should forever be secondary.

Taking leave of the world of the lifelike Buddhist statuary of Qingzhou and viewing their serried ranks from afar, arranged like modern high rises and office towers, one cannot but sincerely hope that the price of admission, roughly equivalent to 1/40th of the monthly salary of the average Chinese, will enable these treasures, which have undergone a thousand years of hardship and misfortune, to last a little longer, and under better conditions.

 




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Yin Jinan
Central Academy of Fine Arts


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