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Unpleasant nights at the museum (3)

(Beijing Review)

14:07, September 21, 2011

COLLECTION OF WONDERS: Exhibits at the Palace Museum (WANG YONGJI)


According to Zhang, the biggest problem is that many museums are regarded by the public as closed and arrogant institutions with a lack of public participation in their affairs.

For example, the management of the Palace Museum has been roundly criticized for its poor attitude and excessive bureaucracy in handling the internal mishaps.

"Almost all the officials in the museum are appointed by the government and I don't think most of them are qualified to run the museum," said Gao He, who retired from the Palace Museum in 1997.

Gao believes that the size of the museum's management has expanded too fast and this expansion hasn't done anything to improve overall efficiency. "When I left in 1997, there were only 10 departments, now there are more than 30," he said.

But Wang Zhini, who graduated from Université d'Angers in France and works in the Marketing Department of the Palace Museum, said that she didn't see the Palace Museum's management as excessively arrogant. "They just don't know how to communicate with the public," Wang said.

"Museums are not government bureaus, nor warehouses for ancient stuff. They are public cultural institutions and transparency is very important," said Song Xiangguang, a professor of archaeology at Peking University. "In fact the staff of the Palace Museum seem even lazier than some corrupt civil servants. And I bet many of them have none of the professional knowledge that is necessary for staff working in museums."

Shang Yu, who used to work as a guide in the Palace Museum, claimed there were too many people working in the museum. "At least half of the workers don't have serious work to do and even those who work every day are very lazy."

Shang decided to quit her job at the Palace Museum in 2009 as she feared the pace of work in the Palace Museum would leave her unable to cope with the demands of the modern world. "I am still very young and I didn't think the slow-paced job had any real prospects," she said.

Pan Shouyong, a professor at the Minzu University of China, also attributes the frequency of damage to antiques to the fact that there are few professionals among museum workers.

According to a survey conducted by Pan, in 2008 and 2009, nearly 90 percent of museum employees in China did not have college degrees and very few of them had studied museum-related subjects. "The repeated occurrence of accidents in the Palace Museum shows that the workers there lack professionalism," Pan said.

Statistics from the State Administration of Cultural Heritage show that the country's museums now have 59,900 employees, of whom only 4.5 percent are well-trained technical personnel.

Even showpieces like the National Museum of China suffer from a lack of skilled professional staff.

In March 2011, the National Museum of China on the eastern side of the Tiananmen Square in central Beijing reopened to the public. While it opened to much fanfare as the largest museum in the world, visitors complained that their visits were less than satisfactory.

"We had to wait in long lines to get into the museum. Even though it was extremely hot, there was no protection from the sunshine," said Li Chunhua, who came all the way from northeast China's Heilongjiang Province to see the museum. "After we finally went in, it was also very hard to find chairs to rest in."

"While the tickets are free we have to make reservations and the reservation numbers are either busy or nobody answers," said a college student from Beijing Normal University. "There are no volunteers in the museum and it is hard to find any brochures with information about the exhibitions at the entrance of the Museum."

Tang Jigen, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that his biggest concern is that due to a lack of professional knowledge, workers at museums don't know how to properly protect the cultural relics they have collected.

"Currently, most public museum curators are appointed by the government. The result is that many museum curators are transferred from other unrelated political bureaus and manage museums in a similar way," Tang said.

As public institutions, Tang suggested, public museums should have their curators elected by the public and curators should at least have a college degree in a related subject.

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