Spring flowers bloomed and soldiers could be seen goose-stepping across Tiananmen Square as I walked through the recently renovated National Museum in Beijing. A new exhibit, "The Road of Rejuvenation," promised to highlight "the glorious history of China under the leadership of the Communist Party." So what's included in a permanent show that contains 2,220 "First-Rank Cultural Objects" and occupies roughly one-fifth of the massive museum's exhibition space? I made my way through room after room of obscure communist artifacts, ranging from a medal awarded to the Chinese 1957 high-jump world-record holder to the gavel used to announce China's 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization. One of the final displays was a glass case containing rotary phones, pagers and cell phones even an iPhone 4. "This is dozens of communications equipment since reform and opening up," read the accompanying English panel.
After a long, $380 million refurbishment, China's National Museum fully reopened in April. It is now the biggest in the world, with 1.05 million cultural relics spread over 192,000 sq m of floor space about 27 soccer fields. In a country obsessed with superlatives, this institution has big ambitions: to present China's 5,000-year civilization not to mention its more recent communist triumphs in a sprawling structure that rivals St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum or Paris' Louvre (which it has now supplanted as the planet's largest museum). Befitting the cultural expression of a rising superpower, the museum boasts cutting-edge imported technology and was rebuilt with direction from a leading German architectural firm. "The renovated museum is a world-class museum," says Luo Zhewen, honorary president of the China Society of Cultural Heritage, who has been involved with the National Museum since it opened its doors in 1959. "I'm very satisfied."
But if the National Museum impresses in terms of size and hardware, it disappoints where it counts most in its narrative. Every museum reflects what its overseers want the public to see. American museums, for instance, can be accused of glossing over the horrors of slavery or the massacre of native populations. But the myopia of Western galleries can't compare with the blinders worn by the Chinese National Museum's organizers, whose sanitized, pro-government displays undermine the institution's stated goal of ranking among the world's premier cultural institutions. "The fact that it's even called a national museum means that it's a very conscious attempt to define national identity and provide a national symbol for the rise of the communist state," says Greg Thomas, chair of the fine-arts department at the University of Hong Kong. "Many countries' state-sponsored museums do this to a certain extent, but not with anywhere near the same level of official propaganda."
China's new National Museum houses two so-called core displays. "The Road of Rejuvenation" is one; the other is "Ancient China," a greatest-hits collection of bronzes, pottery, jade, calligraphy and porcelain, among other treasures. But some of the exhibit's explanatory material is blatantly political, presenting the illusion of a peasant utopia in which different ethnic groups banded together in productive harmony. "Museum hardware, like state-of-the art lighting, is easy to import," says Jenny F. So, a former curator of ancient Chinese art at the Smithsonian's Freer and Arthur M. Sackler galleries in Washington, D.C. "But what you don't often have in China is the intellectual input and academic background needed to make displays accessible and interesting to the audience without weighing things down with a heavy political message."
The amnesia in "The Road of Rejuvenation" is equally telling. The 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, in which the Communist Party unleashed a decade of deadly chaos, is covered with a single photo high up on a back wall. There is no direct mention of the Great Leap Forward, the disastrous economic experiment launched in 1958 that triggered a famine in which 30 million died. Naturally, mention of 1989's brutally suppressed Tiananmen democracy movement is omitted. "The ideological weight of this museum is crushing," says David Clarke, another art expert at the University of Hong Kong.
I first visited the National Museum more than 15 years ago, when it was actually two museums the Museum of the Chinese Revolution and the Museum of Chinese History. I remember a dank smell, bewildering displays and scant English signage. The renovation, which almost tripled the museum's size, was supposed to change all that. But even as light shines through the soaring new entrance hall and self-guided tours are readied for transmission to visitors' cell phones, much else remains old-style. A museum employee told me that if I wasn't going to write something positive, I wouldn't be let in.
Politics remain omnipresent. The first visiting exhibition, organized by a trio of German museums, is called "The Art of Enlightenment." But key Enlightenment themes, like individual expression or questioning authority, are missing from the text panels. A state-media write-up of the exhibit even glossed over the word Enlightenment in favor of the term "the illuminative arts."
Less than a day after German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle flew out of Beijing, where he inaugurated the show on April 1, celebrated contemporary artist Ai Weiwei was detained at the same airport, as part of an ongoing crackdown on liberal thinkers who have dared to stand up to the state. Ai once consulted on the National Museum's renovation, and the stadium he helped design for the 2008 Beijing Olympics is part of a National Museum frieze dedicated to China's greatest accomplishments. But to him, political belief was inseparable from art. The czars of China's new National Museum understand that all too plainly.
with reporting by Chengcheng Jiang / Beijing