Why Chinese museums on edge of survival?

A recent photo in a Chinese newspaper showed foreign visitors to a Chinese museum staring at the museum staff as they held basins to catch raindrops under the leaking roof in the museum's exhibition hall.

"That was embarrassing, but it is the reality," said a person surnamed Cao, in charge of Shaanxi History Museum.


China has more than 2,200 museums, running 8,000 exhibitions annually with visitors totaling 160 million. However, two-thirds of them are now on the edge of survival due to shortage of funds. Most of those threatened are small and medium-sized museums in central and western China, according to Zhang Wenbin, director the Chinese Museum Institute.

As China's first modern museum, Shaanxi History Museum was the best built and equipped when it was established in 1991. "However, the exhibition halls and storerooms haven't gotten maintenance for more than a decade, and basic exhibits have remained unchanged for years," Cao said.

The provincial government has been calling the upgrade of the museum a "key project" for years, but no actual measures have been taken. The upgrading of the exhibitions will cast 13 million yuan (some 1.6 million US dollars), Cao said.

The museum needs two million yuan (about 244,000 US dollars) more to run, above the amount given by the government -- 830,000 yuan (some 10,400 US dollars) -- and the annual revenue from ticket sales -- 10 million yuan (some 1.22 million US dollars).

"As of today, the museum has fallen into a debt of 10 million yuan," Cao said.

Fund shortages have also hit the Museum of Anhui Province, east China, which needs seven to eight million yuan (about 854,000 to 976,000 US dollars) to run annually, but the government fund is only three to four million yuan (366,000 to 488,000 US dollars), making it difficult to cover even daily expenses.

In some county-level museums in central and western China, many exhibits are put on the display randomly. In northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, worms destroyed lamb-skinned paintings because of lack of protection, said Lu Jiansong, a professor with the Shanghai-based Fudan University.

Not only local museums, but also national museums are facing financial shortages. According to Pan Lu, a researcher for the China National Museum, the 39.85 million yuan given by the central government is insufficient to cover environmental control and daily maintenance expenses.

The China International Friendship Museum has a collection of 18,000 presents from foreign leaders, but it doesn't have a hall to showcase them owing to financial reasons.

Apart from a limited number of financially affluent large museums like the Palace Museum based in the Forbidden City in Beijing, Shanghai Museum and the Shaanxi Museum of Qinshihuang Terra-cotta Horses and Warriors, 80 percent of China's museums have no money beyond basic operations such as salaries and water and electricity fees, said Lu.

Some museums don't even have enough money to pay the staff. In Anhui, for instance, the provincial museum has leased out three fourths of its exhibition halls to product shows, making itself look like a shopping carnival.


Apart from financial difficulties, the current administrative system is also pushing museums to the edge of survival.

"Museums are accessorial to the government. The head of museums are usually set by nomination rather than competition. They used to have various careers and do not have to be responsible to their position once nominated," said Lu.

On the other hand, there is no special criteria or evaluation on the museum staff, most of whom were cut from cultural departments and are reallocated to museums. They do not have any pressure working at museums, he added.

According to a recent national survey, only 38 percent of museum staff in China have college diplomas. Those who specialized in history, culture and archeology are even rarer.

Many professionals are rejected by the museum just because their posts are occupied by unqualified staff from other departments.

The protection center of China's National Museum has 33 employees, but only 14 of them had relevant majors. While in small museums like the Chinese Ancient Coins Museum, only one or two employees are doing specialized work.

Moreover, more and more professional employees are giving up their jobs at museums due to low salaries, according to local sources.


The development of museums in China has been going on for a century with the first one opened in 1905 by Zhang Qian, a famous industrialist in the late years of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The number of museums rose sharply from 72 in the mid-1950s to 1,373 by the end of the 20th century.

Most governments place food and clothing as key issues on their working agenda. It is true that the culture industry is getting hot now, but museums are still an unimportant sector in officials' view, said Lu.

In some places, governments often held up 40 to 50 percent of the funds allocated to museums, he said.

"They need to be more aware that cultural relics can never be repaired or renewed once they are damaged if the museum does not have money to protect them," he said.

In addition, some archeological research institutes keep the antiques they find instead of giving them to museums, in spite of the country's regulation, according to Shaanxi's Cao.

"This is because researchers do not want the museum to exhibit the items they found without sharing the ticket income with them," said Cao.


In many Beijing-based museums, the daily number of visitors were only around 10. Many people prefer spending 10 yuan on a hamburger rather than in visiting a museum, said a staff member at the China Ancient Coins Museum, whose ticket price is 10 yuan.

The two exhibitions of Chinese cultural relics in Athens during the 2004 Olympic Games drew 160,000 visitors, including British Queen Elizabeth II and royal family members of the Netherlands, but the same exhibitions in China attracted "miserably few people," said Mei Ninghua, director of the Beijing Bureau of Cultural Relics.

Mei holds that, in addition to hardware upgrades, a sense of publicity and better service are also needed to allure domestic visitors. Zhang Wenbin with the Chinese Museum Institute said more Chinese would come to museum if the exhibition were made more intriguing and participative. According to Zhang, some museums invite visitors to do wood printing in the show of ancient wood printings, while others held Q&A corners for children to help them learn more about the exhibits.

Officials and experts believe that more domestic people would come to museums if the exhibitions were not boring or too technical. After all, museums are a key way for the Chinese to know more about their country's 5,000-year history, which they are proud of.

Source: Xinhua

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