And Finally

Palace scandals

Welcome to the world’s most controversial museum

The School for Scandal is a famed English ‘comedy of intrigue’ that was written by Richard Brinsley Sheridan over two hundred years ago.

But a more recent drama has busied the pens of Chinese journalists lately. A curious blend of tragedy and farce, it might be titled the Museum for Scandal.

The institution under fire is the National Palace Museum in Beijing, housed in the Forbidden City, the 600 year-old citadel of China’s former emperors. Regular readers of WiC will recall we first mentioned bungles at the museum in issue 107. Over the course of the summer they have only got worse.

In that period, writes the Beijing News, “over and over again the Palace Museum has exposed loopholes in management, operational problems, loss of sense of responsibility, delayed response and other problems. This forms a great contrast to the museum’s previous stately and elegant image.”

The troubles began in May when embarrassing breaches in security allowed a thief to stay behind after the museum had closed and steal nine jewel-encrusted purses.

As WiC earlier reported the theft was followed by two further gaffes. First was the revelation that part of the museum’s grounds (closed off to the general public) were to be turned into a lucrative dining club for billionaires. Next, the museum management was accused of illiteracy after sending a banner of thanks to the police (for catching the afore-mentioned thief). The banner used the wrong Chinese character in expressing the museum’s gratitude (instead of applauding the constabulary it accused them of ‘shaking the homeland’s prosperity’).

Then, at the end of July, a prominent blogger revealed that a green-glazed plate from the Southern Song Dynasty had been shattered by museum staff during a fluorescence analysis. Initially hushed up, officials later confirmed the breakage. The 21CN Business Herald cites an expert who valued the plate at Rmb20 million.

Then on August 2, scandal number four. Another netizen revealed that the museum had been concealing that four other treasures had been damaged by staff in recent years (citing a museum whisteblower).

The next furore blew in when China Youth Daily accused the museum of selling sketches from the Northern Song in the auction market. Beijing Times added to the flames with a report that palace officials couldn’t find 100 ancient books supposedly in their safekeeping. Then Century Weekly got in on the act, highlighting a 2009 incident in which palace security guards scammed the government out of ticket revenues, only to be blackmailed themselves and pay out Rmb100,000 in “hush money” to an extortionist.

The Palace Museum houses 1.8 million objects, although only 1% are on show to the public at any time. Questions of its competence are now rife among the public and academics alike.

“The biggest problem is that the Palace is a closed and arrogant institution with lack of social participation, monitoring and a third-party evaluation mechanism,” Zhang Xiaoming, deputy director of cultural studies with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told 21CN.

More broadly, the affair goes beyond the need for organisational reforms. Attacks on the museum – whose bosses are state appointed – are just as much a means for media and bloggers to vent their frustrations with the government (call it criticism by proxy).

Little wonder then that Party bigwigs will be hoping that no more bad news emerges from the Forbidden City in the coming weeks.


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