China’s new Age of Enlightenment
National Museum in Beijing looks to 18th-century Europe for its grand reopening
By András Szántó. Features, Issue 223, April 2011
Published online: 04 April 2011
Imagine you are a rising global superpower of 1.3bn people. You have spent three decades ramping up a $5 trillion economy and upgrading your infrastructure. Now you are reopening your national museum—where you tell your story to your citizens and visitors—after a four-year renovation and expansion that has made it the largest museum building in the world. The immense columned edifice overlooks your capital’s historic central square, a hallowed site that echoes with painful memories of the not-so-distant past. What topic do you choose for your first international exhibition?
For the National Museum of China, on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the topic is the European Enlightenment.
The choice is bold, and timely. China’s blazing resurgence since the late 1970s finds an apt precedent in the explosion of social, scientific and cognitive horizons that shook up 18th-century Europe, ushering in cherished institutions of modernity—museums and newspapers included. For China, there are lessons to be learned—good and bad—from the Age of Reason. “This exhibition is profoundly significant for China in furthering its understanding of the international world as well as recognising and embracing its own cultural values,” said Lu Zhangshen, the museum’s director-general.
Occupying almost 30,000 sq. ft in galleries devoted to international culture in the newly renovated building, which opened last month, “The Art of the Enlightenment”, on view for a whole year, is notable not only for its theme, but for the circumstances of its organisation. It is a product of cultural diplomacy writ large.
The heads of state of China and Germany, presidents Hu Jintao and Christian Wulff, are the official patrons. The idea of staging a joint exhibition originated during a government-sponsored tour of China by German museum chiefs. It’s part of a series of cultural exchanges between the two countries since 2005 aimed at fostering mutual understanding. The details were developed in close collaboration between Chinese authorities and the state museum systems of Dresden, Munich, and Berlin. Together, these institutions are loaning 579 works of art, scientific instruments, and costumes. The Chinese side is responsible for expenses and logistics in China, including transport, exhibition facilities, insurance, marketing and PR, and security. “It’s a bit like bringing three or four huge ocean liners on one track,” says Martin Roth, the director-general of the Dresden museums and a prime mover behind the project. “But it’s working.”
Many international museums are clamouring to collaborate with China these days, but the diplomatic fanfare surrounding this exchange puts it in a league of its own. Signing ceremonies for the exhibition contracts took place in 2007 in the Great Hall of the People, home to China’s parliament, opposite the National Museum on Tiananmen Square, and in 2009 at the Berlin Chancellery, in the presence of chancellor Angela Merkel and premier Wen Jiabao. The project was enshrined in the 2010 Sino-German diplomatic communiqué on strategic partnership between the two nations. The German foreign ministry provided around €6.6m and is expected to send vice-chancellor and foreign minister Guido Westerwelle to the opening on 1 April.
The German involvement extends well beyond loaning works of art. The $380m building was designed by Hamburg-based von Gerkan, Marg and Partners Architects, known as GMP Architects. Car manufacturer BMW is the corporate sponsor. Stiftung Mercator, one of Germany’s largest private foundations, is hosting expert lectures and “salons” at a cost of €1.5m. The Goethe-Institut, the German Federal Republic’s worldwide cultural network, is mounting public educational programmes. Never has there been such ambitious cultural interchange between China and Germany, and for that matter, among the participating German museums.
Shining a light
Over dinner on a bitterly cold January night in Beijing, I asked Cordula Bischoff, the Dresden-based curator of “The Art of the Enlightenment”, which object in the exhibition best represents its message. Without hesitating, she pointed to a silhouette print in the advance catalogue. The work, attributed to Johann Heinrich Lips, depicts Voltaire, the French philosopher, holding a lantern that shines a light outward beyond the picture frame. “He is carrying the light and leading the visitor out of the exhibition,” she said. “It tells everything.” Bischoff’s counterpart, Chen Yu, a curator at the National Museum, nodded in agreement. “This picture is a metaphor of the Enlightenment,” he said. “The European Enlightenment is still influencing people everywhere in the world. Chinese people are still enjoying its fruits.”
True enough, there is more to China and the Enlightenment than meets the eye.
Fine art—itself something of an Enlightenment creation—reflected in full the shifting panorama of 18th-century Europe: the opulence of the monarchic courts; the rise of the public sphere; scientific advances; fascination with history, nature, and faraway places; the worldly questioning of religion and superstition; the emergence of a more individualistic sense of self, along with the darker psychic residue of disenchantment and aimlessness that modern life would bring in its tow. The Age of Reason offered art not only fresh subject matter, but also a new purpose and organisation. It celebrated the artist as an autonomous visionary and witnessed the rise of new public institutions—the exhibition gallery, the concert hall, art criticism—all of which continue to frame the terms of engagement between art and its audience today.
Each of these aspects of the Enlightenment is explored in sections of the Beijing exhibition, which includes highlights by Watteau, Boucher, Canaletto, Piranesi, Hogarth and Goya. Above all, the exhibition is a sustained exercise in teaching history through objects. “We had to find the ideas and we had to find the objects that fit the ideas,” said Chen Yu. A painting by Valentine Green, after Joseph Wright of Derby, titled An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768, on loan from Berlin, is paired with an English vacuum pump, from the Dresden collections, to illustrate an important technological development. A depiction of female painters in Marie-Gabrielle Capet’s Studio Scene, 1808, from the Neue Pinakothek in Munich, suggests a more prominent place for art as well as women in the public sphere. And so on.
Some of this imagery will no doubt appear exotic inside a Chinese museum. Yet the exhibition is not intended to observe Europe at a detached anthropological remove. It marks a chapter in a longer, if sporadic, cultural dialogue.
Royal collections in Europe are brimming with evidence of passionate interest in the Far East around the time of the Enlightenment. The porcelain factories of Meissen, up the river Elbe from Dresden, were copying Chinese technology with the same competitive brio that Chinese companies today bring to the manufacture of electronics. Seminal continental thinkers were influenced by China. Leibniz, the German rationalist, corresponded with missionaries and advocated learning from Confucian traditions. Voltaire saw in Confucianism a weapon against religious intolerance and hung a picture of the Chinese moralist on his wall. Chinese approaches to agriculture and public administration were revered in Enlightenment-age Europe.
A couple of miles from the National Museum, inside Beijing’s historic Confucius Temple, atmospheric galleries proudly display placards about Chinese influence on the Enlightenment and, by extension, the great 18th-century Atlantic revolutions. The Confucian principle, “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself,” for example, was absorbed, via Robespierre, the Jacobin leader, into the Declaration of the Rights of Man during the 1789 French Revolution.
A long century later, it was China’s turn to be inspired by what Kant described as “the emancipation of the human consciousness from an immature state of ignorance and error”. Fervent interest in rationalism and social progress accompanied the collapse of 2,000 years of dynastic rule. On 4 May 1919, some 3,000 students marched to the Tian An Men, the imposing Gate of Heavenly Peace, demanding a stronger and more open China. They called for China to invite “Mr Science” and “Mr Democracy”, the personification of two quintessential Enlightenment concepts. The ensuing groundswell led to the formation of the Communist Party. The museum’s exhibition is being positioned within this vortex of history and politics surrounding Tiananmen Square.
“China’s economic progress amounts to the largest leap in human welfare in history, attended by the fastest growing urban centres in the world,” said Alexandra Munroe, the senior curator of Asian art at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, which has conducted four exchanges with China since 1997. “But the government recognises that to truly lead, you have to be great. Art can nurture greatness because it teaches people how to think and feel creatively and profoundly.”
In one of many conversations I had with Beijing artists and professionals about the exhibition, a local businesswoman rhapsodised about the lessons of the Enlightenment this way: “This is an era of tremendous change. It is time to pause and reflect. Are we a leader economically? Spiritually? It’s part of the opening up after 30 years. What have we lost and what have we gained?”
With a floor area of 192,000 sq. m (2.07m sq. ft)— “a little bit bigger than the Met”, a Chinese official reminded me—the new National Museum is clearly intended to signal China’s muscular ambitions. Its massive white-cube galleries, 712-seat operatic theatre and 264-seat cinema, broadcast studio, state-of-the-art digital equipment, artist guest quarters, research and conservation studios, banquet rooms, and rooftop restaurant were built to impress. People involved in the project recalled inquiries by Chinese planners about the dimensions of the world’s greatest museums. Yet the building conveys a message more nuanced than its Herculean dimensions suggest. Architecture, after all, is the most tangible form of cultural exchange.
Steps from Chairman Mao’s mausoleum and the Forbidden City, the austere structure is one of the Shi Da Jianzhu, or “Ten Great Buildings,” hastily erected in 1959 to mark the tenth anniversary of the People’s Republic. “Every Chinese girl and boy knows its name,” says Stephan Schütz, the lead GMP partner on the project, “so you have to deal with it with a great deal of respect.”
Prior to closing for renovation, the museum had operated as an amalgam of two institutions: the Museum of the Chinese Revolution and the National Museum of Chinese History. Its collection of 1.2m items counted priceless bronze-age relics and discoveries from excavations around China. But its influence on Beijing’s cultural life had been fairly marginal.
Owing to a lack of funds in 1959, the building couldn’t match the size of the Great Hall of the People, across Tiananmen Square. The expansion would correct this imbalance, tripling the museum in size. After criticism in Chinese architectural circles that international architects were using Beijing as a laboratory for far-fetched ideas, the government sought a more contextual approach.
The 2004 architectural competition attracted designs from Rem Koolhaas, Norman Foster, Herzog & de Meuron, and other starchitects, but the choice fell on a lesser-known firm, GMP Architects. In China, where the firm has a 70-person office, GMP Architects has designed sports stadia, office towers, the country’s largest Christian church, and a master plan for Lingang, a new city of 800,000 inhabitants, complete with a maritime museum in the form of a sail ship.
The German architects (working with a mandatory Chinese design partner, China Academy for Building Research) have transformed the museum into a kind of cultural handshake. They pay respect to both Chinese and Western sensibilities, without tipping too far in either direction. Only the 313-metre (around 1,000 ft) façade and side walls have been left intact. Though adorned with terracotta ornamentation, the museum feels like a European building. The original Chinese architects had been steeped in European aesthetics.
The building’s signature entry hall, the aptly named Grand Forum, boasts a footprint 25% larger than the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London. The second level is twice as big again. The architects had proposed an even grander space, but the museum’s director, a trained architect, sent them back to the drawing board, demanding more gallery space. Even so, the staggering hall is destined to be one of the iconic interiors of modern China.
“For us the challenge was to transform traditional Chinese culture into something modern,” said Stephan Rewolle, one of the Beijing-based GMP designers, during a tour of the museum. The structure rests on a granite base and cherry wood panels cover many interior walls, evoking historic Chinese building methods. The upper galleries are accessed through indirect paths to the right and left, in conformity with the feng shui principle of a “ghost wall,” which is there to scare off bad spirits in traditional homes. Allusions to the Forbidden City are found in the roof columns, stone balustrades, ceiling coffers, and custom crimson textile wall panels in the VIP rooms. The resemblance of the main staircase to the Great Wall of China was unintentional, the architects insist—the ultimate proof, perhaps, of the cultural osmosis fueling the design process.
The Chinese clients had as much to learn as the Germans in the building process. The architects introduced them to advanced ventilation and climate systems and convinced them to stick with a restrained palette of building materials. In a country where most museums are built as envelopes, with less thinking about programming and internal structure, the concept of the museum evolved through the experience of working with international partners. “It is a huge education job,” said Rewolle. “When the German curators are here, there are always a lot of young Chinese people around.”
Global culture expanded its footprint during the reconstruction. Four massive galleries have been set aside to showcase the arts of Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. They are soon to be filled with exhibitions jointly organised with the Peruvian ministry of culture and the British Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum. According to Lu Zhangshen, projects with Italy, the US, Canada, Cyprus, Japan, Korea, Australia, and New Zealand are also underway. “My greatest expectation for the exhibition,” he said, “is that it can genuinely reflect the meaning of a new beginning and make for a successful start.”
“Cultural exchange is also a thinking exchange,” said Chen Ping, the culture ministry official who was the main liaison for the Enlightenment exhibition. “Difference of opinion is not terrible,” he added. “Much worse is not knowing each other.” Chen Ping knows whereof he speaks. Fluent in German and English, he is also at ease with the intricacies of European art history and championship soccer.
His ministry has about 160 people—half of its staff—assigned to cultural exchanges, on which it spends $50m annually. Some 300 diplomats at Chinese embassies work on cultural programmes. Since 2001, the ministry has sponsored cultural festivals in Berlin, Amsterdam, Rome, and Washington, DC, and around France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Italy. Cultural institutes have been established in Mauritius, Benin, Paris, Berlin, Malta, Cairo, Tokyo, Seoul, and Ulan Bator. Thirty additional satellites are planned over the next decade. That’s not counting the 330 Confucius institutes in 98 countries operated by the ministry of education to teach Chinese language and culture to foreigners.
The reopening of the National Museum is intended not only for domestic consumption, but to project China’s cultural strength abroad. It is the tip of a museum construction boom. As of 2009 there were 3,020 museums in China, including 328 private museums (the American Association of Museums estimates 17,500 in the US). One hundred new museums are being added each year. Attendance to most historic museums has been free since 2008. In March the government made entry to museums of modern and contemporary art free. The torrid pace of museum development is part of a national drive to build cultural infrastructure and, as Cai Wu, the minister of culture, put it earlier this year in a published comment, “to establish a batch of world-famous cultural brands.”
“The next ten years should be a golden period for the development of every aspect of cultural industries in China,” said Ye Lang, of the Institute for Cultural Industries at Beijing’s Communications University, at a January conference. A “Cultural Industry Promotion Plan” was launched in 2009, as China’s cultural output was reported to reach $127bn and grow 15% annually. “The country isn’t just satisfied with the economic achievements it had made,” the Xinhua news agency announced in January. “What it now needs is all-round cultural influence on an international scale.” The government backs these ambitions with a cultural outlay of $4.45bn in 2009, excluding construction costs.
The term “soft power,” which Harvard professor Joseph Nye defined in 1988 as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payment,” is a familiar one in policy circles in China, a country engaged in a perpetual self-assessment of its global role. Large investments into cultural projects and exchanges have made China one of the world’s most active sponsors of cultural diplomacy.
China’s leaders recognise that culture can buy goodwill abroad. High profile exchanges like the Enlightenment exhibition can convey openness and sensitivity as well as confidence. As Harvey Dzodin, a former ABC television executive living in Beijing, wrote in the Global Times, while “external publicity work” through state-owned media is likely to be seen as propaganda, cultural attractions send a different message. A perfect example would be the Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an, “who are serving China better today as soft power ambassadors than they ever served the first emperor of China, Qin Shihuang, as hard power soldiers in the afterlife 2,300 years ago”.
In a 2007 keynote speech to the 17th Party Congress, president Hu Jintao declared, “We must enhance culture as part of the soft power of our country” and “strengthen international cultural exchanges to enhance the influence of Chinese culture worldwide.” The ministry of foreign affairs has since established an office of public diplomacy. Premier Wen Jiabao vouched in his 2010 report to the National People’s Congress that China will put more resources behind promoting its culture. The party is certainly willing to spend big to burnish China’s image. The 2008 Olympics and the 2010 World Expo had a price tag of $80bn. China has been rapidly scaling up its presence at international cultural events like the Frankfurt Book Fair, not to mention on the art market, where, according to Artvest research, it boosted its market share fourfold since 1996. The reopening of the National Museum is but one point in this constellation of events.
It is sobering to contrast this vigour with the anaemic cultural diplomacy of the US. Triumphalism after the Cold War led to a rollback of America’s overseas cultural apparatus, culminating in the dismantling, in 1999, of the US Information Agency (USIA), once the recipient of $1.4bn in annual funding. After 9/11, as the US focused on the Muslim and the Arab world, public diplomacy, dispersed across a range of government agencies, was rudderless. Today, the state department’s bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), which among other responsibilities oversees arts and cultural exchanges, is again building new initiatives. But its modest 2010 budget of $11.5m for cultural exchanges (about 2% of the bureau’s total budget) is deployed mostly outside the visual arts, favouring people-to-people exchange over institutional initiatives, such as travelling exhibitions. It’s worth noting that the ECA’s entire arts and cultural exchange budget is roughly in line with German public expenditure on the Enlightenment exhibition.
In short, although US museums conduct exchanges with China, when it comes to financing major undertakings, they are not evenly matched with their state-backed Asian or European counterparts. The US follows the same approach to cultural exchange as it practises in the wider arts policy arena. It outsources much of the work to private institutions and public-private partnerships, assuming that private funders will pick up the tab. Many European countries are now eyeing a similar approach. The trouble is that private foundations are loath to support international programs.
In a 2010 report, Promoting Public and Private Reinvestment in Cultural Exchange Based Diplomacy, the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation found total direct US foundation investment in cultural exchanges dropping steadily in 2003-08, to $20.7m annually. The amount is 0.64% of cultural grantmaking and a paltry 0.05% of total US foundation giving.
Starting a conversation
Will investments in the National Museum and the Enlightenment exhibition pay off for China and Germany? The question begs larger questions still. Can museums shape social attitudes? Does culture have a meaningful role in statecraft? Should art institutions act in the service of governments?
The crudest metric of success, attendance, certainly won’t be a problem. The new building comfortably holds 50,000 people. “Half a million visits is not a lot for us” in the course of a year, remarked the curator Chen Yu. But for sceptics—and there are many—doubts loom over the enterprise.
Cultural collaborations are fraught with complexity. The Chinese are tough and unsentimental negotiators. Western executives privately grumble about sudden changes in direction. For their part, some Chinese were surprised to find that, as one put it, “co-ordination was a challenge for the German colleagues.”
Cultural diplomacy’s impact is even harder to gauge. Despite China’s expenditures on culture and openness, the nation’s popularity seems to decline with every uptick in its economic might. China has nothing like the global appeal of American popular culture. And no amount of soft power can offset the hard realities of global finance and human rights. Just as the National Museum prepared to open, local authorities, wary of unrest in the Middle East, tightened the reins on public assembly and the press.
Perhaps the greatest hope for the Enlightenment exhibition is that it will spark a conversation among artists, scholars, and professionals about the course of China’s ascent on the world stage. “The museum can be a source of new ideas,” said Schütz. “People in China are extremely interested in absorbing new ways of thinking.” The stakes could not be more profound: Can the country’s potential find expression in humane and sustainable achievements? Will China’s leaders base decision-making on what the German social philosopher Jürgen Habermas called “rational, critical, and genuinely open discussion of public issues”? Having embraced a culture of unchecked materialism, will Chinese citizens rediscover intangible sources of value and meaning?
“I don’t think the Enlightenment is over; I think every period needs some Enlightenment in art and form,” said Chen Ping, the Ministry official. “China needs it. America needs it. Even in Europe, they need the Enlightenment today.”
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