In the 1975 movie The Return of the Pink Panther, a priceless diamond is stolen from the fictional National Museum of Lugash. A white monogrammed glove is left behind, and Inspector Jacques Clouseau is called in to recover the pink jewel. Cue 114 minutes of bungling and buffoonery as Peter Sellers goes about solving the crime.
Beijing’s Palace Museum will not appreciate the comparison, but it has seen its own share of slapstick over the past fortnight.
Problems also began with a theft, in this case of nine gold and jewel-encrusted purses being dislayed at a temporary exhibition. The thief, a 28 year-old from Shandong province, posed as a tourist, hid himself when the museum closed, and then snaffled the items overnight on May 8.
The Palace Museum is housed in the Forbidden City, the citadel of China’s former emperors. But media reports said that alarms did not function during the robbery nor did sniffer dogs detect that the thief was still in the museum when the doors were closed.
This all proved very embarrassing. “The Palace Museum bears an unshirkable responsibility for this regretful incident,” said assistant curator, Feng Nai’en. “The incident shows that we need to speed up the installation and upgrade of our security systems.”
To make matters worse the items stolen were on loan from Hong Kong’s Liangyi Museum.
Fortunately, the police soon managed to catch the culprit, Shi Bokui, and recover some of the stolen items. But that didn’t mean that officials at the museum were to be spared their moment of ridicule.
Clouseau himself was famous for mangling the English language (for example, introducing himself as an “officer of the lure”). And the Palace Museum was soon being mocked for its own linguistic shortcomings too.
In gratitude to the police officers who apprehended the thief, the museum had sent over a banner of thanks. It was supposed to thank the police for “safeguarding” the homeland’s cultural wealth. But officials used the wrong Chinese character, instead applauding the the police for “shaking” the homeland’s prosperity.
When media then lambasted museum officials for their error, the bureaucrats insisted that the correct character had been used.
That was a mistake as it kept the story running, and soon they were preparing to back down. On Tuesday the Shanghai Daily ran the headline “Humiliated museum admits wrong word blunder”.
A museum spokesperson then said: “The security guard department was responsible for contacting the producer to make the banner. Due to time pressures, the department brought the banner to the police station directly from the production site without taking it back to the museum for checking”.
Subtext: blame the guys with truncheons, not those of us with degrees in anthropology.
Unfortunately, the media was now beside itself with excitement. CCTV host Rui Chenggang then used his weibo microblog to reveal that the Palace Museum had transformed a part of the Forbidden City (the Jianfu Palace) into an exclusive private club.
Around 500 memberships were being sold to the world’s billionaires, reported the Beijing News. Membership could be purchased for Rmb1 million ($153,000). To add historical atmosphere, members would be served by waitresses dressed as imperial palace maids.
Netizens were quick to point out that while ordinary Chinese could not visit the area, billionaires could hold banquets and behave like modern-day emperors (a sentiment that is touchy again today as the government seeks to contain growing anger over the widening rich-poor divide).
Once again, the museum’s first line of defence was denial. However, as the Shanghai Daily reported, there was soon “another turnaround” as museum officials admitted that they had “slapped down plans for a luxurious club for the rich in one of its palaces”.
In a further statement, museum bosses again put it all down to a misunderstanding.
“The firm commissioned to provide garden hospitality services – Beijing Palace Museum Palace Culture Development – had sent out membership application forms without the museum’s approval, aiming to compensate for the cost of their services. The inappropriate behaviour has stopped. Currently, no membership contract has been signed and no membership procedures have been made for anyone.”
Whoever said a day at the museum is usually a dull experience…
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