Reviving the cultural power of China's museums

Updated: 2012-11-28 15:40


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China has long been known for the sheer number of its historical relics. Now, however, from the globally renowned Beijing Palace Museum and the privately owned China Red Sandalwood Museum in Beijing to the unique China Paper-cut Museum in Shaanxi, the quality of the institutions housing this treasure is also being recognized.

Museums are powerful guardians and showcases of cultural identity. As crowds are wowed by the Shanghai Biennial's hosting in an acclaimed new art gallery in the city, experts have told Xinhua how Chinese museums are entering a fresh era.

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Gone are the days when the only notable Chinese attraction frequented by foreign visitors was Beijing's Forbidden City, officially known as the Palace Museum.

Around 100 new museums are now opening each year in China. Official statistics show that the number of museums registered in the country increased from 2,200 to 3,589 in the 10 years up to the end of 2011. It means that there is now one museum for every 400,000 Chinese people. And it is predicted that there will be one for every 250,000 Chinese by 2020.

"The development has entered the fast lane," says Song Xinchao, deputy director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage. "But at the same time, we have also reached a transitional period, that is, from quantity-oriented to quality-focused."

Among those quality museums, Shanghai's new contemporary art gallery, known as the Power Station of Art, or PSA, has been a must-see since it opened on Oct. 1, 2012.

A redevelopment of a former power plant built in 1897, it has retained the building's 165-meter-tall chimney, and expanded the interior to more than 41,000 square meters. Its 12 exhibition halls of Chinese artworks from the 1980s earn it the status of China's first state-run contemporary art gallery.

Home to the ninth Shanghai Biennial which runs until March 31, 2013, the PSA hosts exhibitions ranging from a review of the past 30 years of Chinese contemporary art to works from the Pompidou Center in Paris, giving audiences a feast of world art and a mixture of different cultures.

In addition, the PSA also promotes art education and international art cooperation. Visitors can participate in art-related lectures, and interact with artists in the museum cafe to further appreciate the displays and learn more about the stories behind the exhibitions.

"We have deliberately blurred the definition of public space and exhibition space. Even the chimneys are now public spaces, and many people will have the chance to interact with the artwork in the open exhibition hall," says the PSA's designer, Dr. Zhang Ming.

Thanks to these visitor-friendly designs and free access to more than 1,800 museums nationwide, a total of 400 million tourists are attracted to China's museums annually, a 60 percent rise from 2007, according to latest official figures in 2012.

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