When the British Museum was founded in 1753, it didn’t have a political purpose. It was created simply because physician Sir Hans Sloane bequeathed a huge collection of manuscripts and artefacts to King George II, fearing otherwise that his assembled “curiosities” would be broken up and sold off.
Over the centuries that followed the Bloomsbury-based museum has become more politically controversial, in large part due to the dispute over the Elgin Marbles. The Greek government still wants the sculptures returned to Athens – their home for 2,250 years before Thomas Bruce purchased them (on the cheap from a Turkish seller) and shipped them off to London.
Some museums are more ostensibly designed with a political purpose. A good example is the newly- opened National Museum in Beijing. It is the world’s largest (at 200,000 square metres of space) and houses over 3,000 artefacts.
Those who want to learn more about Shang cooking vessels and Ming porcelains won’t be disappointed (see WiC97 for an article on the museum’s most prized objects).
But WiC was also curious about an exhibition named The Road to Rejuvenation. And this permanent display is far more political than anything you’ll find in the Louvre, Smithsonian or British Museum itself.
For a foreigner it is an eye-opening insight into how Chinese children are taught history. The first thing to be read on entry is: “The Chinese nation is a great nation whose people are industrious, courageous, intelligent and peace-loving and have made indelible contributions to the progress of human civilisation.”
A little lacking in modesty, perhaps (how many other national museums would have something similar hanging up by the door?).
The narrative soon moves on, however, to remind visitors of a less happy period in the nineteenth century when China was reduced to a semi-colonial state after the Opium War.
But the exhibition’s purpose: to tell the tale of its recovery from an era of humiliation to one of rejuvenation.
Anyone to thank for sorting that out? The exhibition “highlights the glorious history of China under the leadership of the Communist Party.” Thanks to the Party’s contribution, the modern Chinese nation “is standing firm in the east, facing a brilliant future of rejuvenation”.
The first zone of the exhibition focuses on the decline of the Qing Dynasty; and the second “the invasion of China by imperialist powers”. Here the language of some of the signage is worthy of note: “After Britain started the Opium War in 1840, the imperialist powers descended on China like a swarm of bees, looting our treasures and killing our people.”
True enough, the British did start the Opium War. Bees may have more ground for indignation, however, as normally locusts get the rap for laying waste to all before them.
Walk further on, and there is another metaphorical grey area.
A sign proclaims “An earth-shattering event”, which often implies a more negative outcome. But clearly not: in case you hadn’t guessed it, the exhibition is talking about the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921.
As the narrative makes clear, the reawakening has begun: Mao Zedong’s patriotic leadership sees the Japanese aggressor expelled and the civil war won. China “stands up” in 1949 with the founding of the People’s Republic. This creates “the conditions for undertaking economic development on a massive scale”.
In an act of supreme amnesia, the exhibition skips disasters like the Great Leap Forward (in which as many as 45 million Chinese are estimated to have died), as well barely mentioning the Cultural Revolution (another horrific era).
A single sign does refer to “setbacks in the exploration of socialist construction” but it is the positives that get more of the attention, such as the development of China’s nuclear bomb and Mao’s summit with Richard Nixon.
The narrative picks up pace after 1978, and the era of economic reforms. This section is festooned with photos of factories and commercial handshakes. Best of all there’s the chair that Deng Xiaoping sat on during his trip to Shenzhen to inspect the progress of market reform in the city (taking photos was permitted, so WiC snapped a shot of the chair – see image).
The signage trumpeting the modern era under Hu Jintao caught our attention too. “Opening a new chapter in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects” seemed much more restrained than some of the earlier commentary.
And on leaving the exhibition – a lavish affair spread over three separate floors – the visitor gets a final reminder of what should have been gleaned from the previous half hour: “History has proven that without the Communist Party of China, the People’s Republic of China would never have come into being, nor would socialism with Chinese characteristics; socialism is the only way to save China, and reform and opening-up is the only way to develop China, develop socialism and develop Marxism.”
That final recap says much about modern China and the trouble it still has in squaring off its more recent history. No one who visits today will find any taste for Marxism, and China is now one of the world’s more unequal societies (as measured by the Gini Coefficient).
On the evidence of this exhibition, China also remains some way from teaching its modern history in a more objective fashion.
But the National Museum itself is an impressive building and there is far more to it than the exhibition mentioned above. It merits a visit (admission is free, but you need to bring your passport).
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