National Museum

On a beautiful spring day, I decided to make my way to the National Museum of Art on the edge of Tiananmen Square. I had tried visiting there in February during the Spring Festival holidays, but the line outside the museum had been too long. So I waited for a Friday afternoon in April, and I breezed in with no trouble at all.

My expectations were not high. This weighty Soviet-style building on the eastern side of Tiananmen Square had previously housed the Museum of Chinese History and the Museum of the Chinese Revolution. Years ago  I would visit and stroll past bronze statues of valiant soldiers and  look up at admirable paintings of Communist Party leaders and industrial achievements. The two museums were merged as the National Museum of China (NMC) in 2003. Then after major renovation and expansion, it reopened in 2011 with 192,000 square meters of gallery space, which according to the NMC website makes it “the largest museum in the world.” A retrospective show of Colombian painter Fernando Botero opened there last November, so the museum’s scope has become international.

It’s a baby museum in a giant space with some excellent educational exhibits and artifacts—that’s my conclusion. The space is indeed gigantic, but it is welcoming and easy to navigate despite the scale. It makes me think of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York… someday, if and when China has as extensive a collection as the Met, then this building will burst with cultural life. So that’s the vision: China wants to build a world-class museum here. In fact,  Xi Jinping first pronounced his idea of “the China Dream” in this building.

On the afternoon I visited, my fellow museum-goers were interested, quiet, and orderly. There were students, families, and ordinary citizens, and everyone was behaving in a respectful manner befitting a world-class museum. I appreciated this because often in China you will run into loud, oblivious crowds who make it hard to enjoy a nice cultural setting or contemplate history and art. So chalk one up for the NMC—the environment induced a reverence for art and culture, or the loud tourists had left already.

On the ground floor in the central gallery was the obligatory grand exhibit of politically correct paintings and sculptures. Ho-hum, I thought. But, surprisingly, when I went in, I found the exhibit worthwhile. The selection of paintings was both artistic and instructive. The oil paintings of Chinese Communist Party history were rich in color and expression, and the installation layout allowed one to compare early works from the 1950s with vibrant paintings from the Cultural Revolution period, juxtaposed to newer contemporary paintings.

One can learn from these paintings the correct values and honored personages of the CCP. One can also study the expressions on the individual people’s faces and appreciate the artistic way mood is conveyed through color, line, and composition. It wasn’t so boring.

Upstairs, I was most impressed by an exhibition on the history of Chinese calligraphy. On proud display were cultural artifacts from ancient times—including the earliest calligraphy inscribed on animal bones and tortoise shells—and photographic images clearly showing the inscribed characters.  Display text, unfortunately only in Chinese, explained the changing styles of Chinese written characters over thousands of years. The exhibit was fascinating to look at, and I marveled at the history presented.

What struck me the most, however, was the political about-face that has occurred in the past 40 years. During the Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976, cultural relics were demolished, and scholars were ostracized, ridiculed, beaten, and driven to death. Intellectuals who studied the ancient writings on animal bones and tortoise shells were considered not only worthless but detrimental to society. So, to see this well-designed exhibit in the National Museum of China—displaying ancient cultural objects with such reverence and presenting extensive scholarly research to educate the public on China’s cultural heritage—that is exhilarating.

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