China's New Cultural Revolution

Museums and galleries are opening in China at an astonishing rate - with world-class exhibits. Mark Rowe reports on the changes brought about by the Cultural Olympiad, a spin-off from the 2008 Games

The Shanghai Museum is at the vanguard of an extraordinary transformation of China's approach to its public galleries. Its upper floor hosts a comprehensive display of the costumes of the minority tribes of China. Escalators glide you down to the next level, and an international temporary exhibition, perhaps on Monet or Picasso. On the ground floor, among low lighting and soft, carpeted floors, you can wander through hushed galleries where backlit cabinets show artefacts from a range of dynasties. You could be in the Great Hall of the British Museum or of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

The $100m (£50m) museum is generally recognised as China's first world-class museum in terms of standards of display and preservation, and it is now regarded as something of a standard bearer for change. The phrase "Cultural Revolution" cannot be used lightly in regard to China but there is no doubt that the country's museum sector is undergoing a radical upheaval, the beneficiaries of which include the foreign tourist.

Despite China's unsurpassed cultural richness, the vast majority of visitors still only ever visit the Forbidden City in Beijing and the Terracotta Army in Xian. This is partly because that's how most tour groups are processed, but until recently more independent-minded visitors have struggled with the low profile given to China's museums.

China has traditionally placed little emphasis on museums: other areas have had priority for funding; staff are poorly trained and, curiously, there is no real cultural tradition of strolling around a museum on a Sunday afternoon, though this is slowly changing with the emergence of a Chinese middle class.

The impetus for the change in the fortunes of China's museum sector is the Cultural Olympiad. The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games is in sight, and the Olympiad is a four-year cycle of events that each Olympic City is required to embrace ahead of the Games as a way of showcasing its culture. (Accordingly, London's own Cultural Olympiad begins in 2008.) China appears to have embraced this mission with the same enthusiasm it has for capitalism and high-rise shiny buildings, and is throwing huge amounts of money at its museums and galleries. It is nothing less than a great leap forward: 100 new museums will open in China before the Olympics, and, in a move that recalls Chairman Mao's five-year plans, the authorities have announced that an incredible 1,000 new museums will be opened by 2015, by which time every significant city in China is expected to have a modern museum. Beijing already has 118 museums and plans to open and build a further 30 in time for the Olympics; Shanghai aims to open 100 new museums over the next four years.

By 2008, the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Cultural Relics will have received $72m from the municipal government to maintain and renovate places of historic interest across the city. Last year Beijing witnessed the opening of the new Capital Museum, the largest cultural building constructed in the city since 1949. Other museums being built include a National Art Gallery and museums on a range of 20th-century phenomena, including films and cars. The Beijing Planetarium is being expanded, along with China's Agriculture Museum. Meanwhile, the China National Museum on Tiananmen Square represents the largest museum renovation work in the city. The project will almost double the museum's floor space to more than a million square feet - and carries a price tag of $217m.

Shanghai, Beijing's thrusting little brother, is seeking not just to emulate but surpass the capital. The city already has a new museum of antiquities, and a $200m science museum, while construction has begun on the largest contemporary art museum in Asia. The space, located among the Hong Kong skyline of Shanghai's Pudong district, will feature a range of modern arts, from contemporary art to experimental music, drama and film and is scheduled to open in 2009.

New museums and projects are opening right across the county. In Xian, the Terracotta Army museum is to be augmented after the Chinese government pledged $55m towards the construction of three additional museums to house the statues of acrobats, civil servants and warriors found close to the tomb of Emperor Qin, a mile away from the main museum.

The city already has another world-class and thoroughly modernised museum, the Shaanxi History Museum. Located in a graceful Tang-style building and home to 373,000 cultural relics, the collection ranges from burial items from the early Shang and Zhou dynasties to unicorns from the 4th century BC and pottery honour guards from the Ming era. All are displayed with English and Chinese captions. The city is also home to China's first underground museum, the Han Yang Ling museum, featuring a world-class collection of relics from the Western Han dynasty.

Yet this burst of museum building has been accompanied by a clear sense of the importance of cultural history, and the authorities do seem to know when to apply the handbrake. In Xian, the authorities are resisting pressure to excavate the tomb of Emperor Qin, who ordered the huge site to be built to accompany him to the afterlife.

According to historians, it contains a vast array of treasures, including a map of the earth with rivers made from mercury, eternal lamps and booby traps with crossbows to attack the unwary. Foreign archaeologists are itching to see what lies inside this Indiana Jones-style tomb but it will not be opened until the requisite technology is available. "If we open the tomb and the treasures are lost, they stay lost," said Jin Tai, a senior member of the Terracotta Army museum staff.

Cultural Highlights

1. Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum, Xian

The extraordinary collection of clay soldiers and civil servants in the entourage that accompanied Emperor Qin Shi Huang to the afterlife has mesmerised visitors for more than 30 years. Recently, the collection was rehoused in a series of monumental halls. Points of interest include a "warrior hospital", where you can watch staff patiently matching up limbs, armoury and torsos.

2. Shaanxi Provincial Museum, Xian

A visit has been compared to walking through the history of the Silk Road - the city was a key point on the route and was capital of China for more than 1,100 years. Displays date from the Xia (2200-1700BC) and move through history into the Ming and Qing dynasties. A 10,000 square feet underground museum for Tang mural paintings is under construction. For further information go to chinamuseums.com/sx_history.htm

3. Han Yang Ling Museum, near Xian

Recently opened, this claims to be China's first underground museum, located around the mausoleum of Emperor Liu Qi (188-141BC) and Empress Wang. It features a world-class collection gathered from the pits there, including 1,800 relics from the Western Han dynasty, such as terracotta animals and naked pottery figurines. For details go to travelchina guide.com/attraction/shaanxi/xian/hanyang.htm.

4. China National Museum, Beijing

The museum, located in Tiananmen Square, will reopen next year and will include 15 themed, permanent collection halls and 13 other halls for international and other displays. It is housed within a landmark building that was constructed in 1959 to mark the 10th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. Highlights include a rare bronze human figure marked with acupuncture points. For information go to nationalmuseum.cn.

5. Forbidden City, Beijing

Includes the Imperial Palace, home to China's emperors for nearly 600 years. The Chinese capital's major tourist spot is undergoing a £1bn facelift. Areas to be addressed include faded colour paintings and antiques. The repairs are intended to enable the Forbidden City to open up more than 80 per cent of the palace to the public; at present, just 30 per cent enjoys public access. For information go to dpm.org.cn.

6. China Millennium World Art Museum, Beijing

In a country that has been historically inward looking, this museum, which opened in 2001, is dedicated to bringing the arts that lie beyond the Middle Kingdom to the wider Chinese public. Also stages exhibitions of domestic and international art, which have included displays on Mayan civilisation, and an exhibition on great civilisations that runs until 2008. For information go to worldartmuseum.cn.

7. New Capital Museum, Beijing

The old museum, located in a temple, was moved to a purpose-built new home last year and is an extraordinary combination of architectural designs - think Tate Modern meets Confucian Temple. Inside visitors can find more than 5,000 items on display, including exhibits on Peking Opera, the city's old - and quickly disappearing - alleyways, known as hutongs, and folklore. For information go to capitalmuseum.org.cn/en/.

8. Shanghai Museum

Located in the People's Park, the Shanghai Museum is generally recognised as a world-class repository to be placed alongside the top museums of Europe and United States. The design of the building is meant to represent the ancient Chinese philosophy that the square earth is under the round sky, while inside the 11 galleries display some of the museum's collection of 120,000 items, including calligraphy, sculpture, jade and ceramics. For more information go to shanghaimuseum.net/en.

9. Hong Kong Museum of Art

Housed in the modern, shiny Hong Kong Cultural Centre, on the Kowloon side of the harbour, the museum has a good range of calligraphy and traditional Chinese landscape paintings. (Pictures of the distinctive lemon drop hills feature on the souvenir list of most visitors to China.) The museum also often showcases local artists' work. For more information go to lcsd.gov.hk/CE/Museum Arts.

10. Hong Kong's Maritime Museum

Hong Kong's first museum of ships and seafaring opened last year on the ground floor of Murray House in Stanley. Focusing on the vessels that have plied Chinese coastal waters over the past 2,000 years, from junks to pirates, the museum houses more than 500 displays. One of the first museums in China to embrace the notion of interactive games for children and adults. For more information go to hkmaritimemuseum.org.

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