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Geopolitics

China's National Museum Reopens As Artists Are Locked Up

The newly reopened National Museum of China on Tiananmen Square sits uneasily amid the recent wave of repression that has led to the arrest of hundreds of people including avant-garde artist Ai Weiwei. Ironically, one of the first exhibitions is on the We

Avant-garde artist Ai Weiwei was arrested April 3
Avant-garde artist Ai Weiwei was arrested April 3
Brice Pedroletti

BEIJING - The new National Museum of China is an enormous building lined with columns and situated right in front of Chairman Mao's mausoleum in Tiananmen Square.

Boasting 192,000 square meters of exposition space, the museum has just completed an ambitious three-year renovation and expansion project that cost nearly 2.5 billion yuans ($382 million). It is meant to endow China with a museum worthy of its growing power and rank in the world, surpassed in surface area only by the Louvre's 210,000 square meters.

Though open to the public for free since March 27, it now only handles 8,000 visitors a day inside its permanent collections. This explains the crowds outside each morning as people throng to the entrance in a bid to see the rooms devoted to "The Road to the Renaissance," "Ancient Bronzes," and "Chinese Porcelains and Buddha Statues." Only half the building is accessible to visitors. The rooms dedicated to Chinese antiquity are due to open on April 15.

German architectural agency Gerkan, Marg & Partners, specialists in large-scale projects such as train stations, airports and stadiums, were responsible for transforming this gigantic, Stalinist building dating back to 1959, and renovating its entrance hall and galleries. This new museum has been created by amalgamating the Museum of Chinese History and the Museum of the Revolution. These two institutions were eminently political and often ridiculed for the paucity of their collections: a third of the one million objects in the Museum of Chinese History were coins.

To avoid such ridicule this time round, history museums, scattered across China, have been ordered to send their most beautiful treasures to Beijing. But the key mission of this sparkling cultural platform at the heart of Beijing remains "patriotic education", fashioning and interpreting Chinese history in such a way that serves the Communist Party's political discourse.

Nothing illustrates this more than a permanent exhibit entitled "The Road to the Renaissance." It begins with the period of humiliation during which the Chinese were subjects of Western, colonial power. After recounting the stages of nationalistic awakening and modernization, it culminates in the forming of the first Republic.

"Steal a bell while plugging your ears'

The sections dedicated to the People's Republic of China, created after Mao seized power in 1949, display the milestones of the party's history one after another up until the economic success of these last years: conquest of space, the train to Tibet, the Olympic games.

A single photo displays a smiling Mao in consultation with his party members in 1961, just after the disastrous experience of The Great Leap Forward that caused the death of millions of Chinese. Two photos touch upon the Cultural Revolution without even alluding to its atrocities. The only image related to the events of 1989 that took place in the very same Tiananmen Square where the museum is located is dated June 9 and shows Deng Xiaoping congratulating the martial law troops and shaking hands with a radiant officer.

"I was surprised that there is so little detail," comments a young biology student called Li, who was born in 1987. "Tiananmen...some of our professors talk about it and we see it on the Internet!"

This mutilated history "makes me furious," says Yang Jisheng, a former journalist at the state Xinhua news agency and author of a monumental study about the great famine that swept the country from 1958 to 1961, which is banned in China. "We who know the history, we avoid these types of museums. The historical facts are twisted. This refusal to discuss the history, it's a little like stealing a bell while plugging your ears, thinking that you'll then get away unnoticed," he explains.

Used ad nauseam by the regime, these concepts of the renaissance or regeneration are particularly misleading, adds M. Yang, "They make reference to moments when China was supposedly glorious. But which eras should be considered: the first emperor, the Tang dynasty, the Qin dynasty? And which aspects of these eras that were dictatorships should we keep?"

While the great museums of the world compete with one another, the one in Beijing reveals a paradox that is shaping China. The first foreign exhibition is dedicated to "the art of the Enlightenment." A masterstroke of German diplomacy, the year-long exhibition gathers 600 18th century works from museums in Berlin, Munich, and Dresden.

The exhibits have a strange resonance given the recent wave of repression that has led to the rounding up of hundreds of people from liberal circles, including the April 3 arrest of the master of avant-garde Chinese art, Ali Weiwei. One such obvious paradox is the display of the bust of German philosopher Emmanuel Kant on which is engraved his quote: "Have the courage to use your own reason." Another is the portrait of French writer and philosopher Voltaire, composed of his shadow, and holding a lantern that lights his way, attributed to Johann Heinrich Lips.

At the exhibition's inauguration on April 1, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle spoke about the ideas of Enlightenment art, such as the respect for dignity, the State, and individual liberties, all ideas that lead to the fall of the Berlin wall, he said. The Chinese press did not cite these statements.

A number of French and European museums are considering exhibitions in this museum. The Louvre, for its part, continues its cooperation with the Forbidden City. The luxury goods group LVMH (Moët Hennessy-Louis Vuitton) is in talks with the museum concerning an exhibition on the history of its up-market luggage maker Louis Vuitton, scheduled for the end of May. It would be displayed in four rooms of the museum and last two or three months, according to a spokesperson of the group in Shanghai.

With its ambitions, enormous spaces to fill, and prestige, this Chinese flagship is being wooed by the museums of the world. But it won't be simple, because, as an expert underscores: "the editorial policies of Chinese museums are not always clear."

Read the original article in French.

Photo - Sanfamedia

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