China's old museums need to modernize

Updated: 2012-02-28 14:46

By Ellie Buchdahl (

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The Palace Museum in Beijing's Forbidden City is to be given a makeover.

A series of embarrassing scandals last year - accusations of ticketing scams, thefts, cover-ups of accidental breakages by museum staff - have been a blight on the reputation of this hugely important historical site.

Now officials are planning to do up the Palace Museum and improve its image.

It's about time, too. I have been to the Forbidden City twice. For me, that was twice too many.

It's not that I don't like history - I spent four years of my life studying for a history degree. But two full days at the Forbidden City left me with no impression of history or culture at all.

What they did leave were memories of hours spent struggling through miles of identical, poorly-labeled buildings and hordes of tourists. The Forbidden City is a serious mouthful for the average tourist, and nothing has been done to make it more bite-size.

This is a shame, because the really interesting stuff is all at the end in the Treasures Hall. You have to pay a little extra to get in, but once you do you find galleries of headdresses, clothes and jewels worn by the emperors, furniture, and beautiful paintings. Unfortunately, most people are too exhausted to enjoy it by that stage. Even if you do have the energy, there's barely a label to explain what you're seeing. The words "Qing Dynasty" are about the only description you can hope for.

Luckily, this isn't the case for every historical site in China.

The Forbidden City could learn a lot from Xi'an. Not, I hasten to add, the Terracotta Warriors - impressive as these are they also suffer from a general lack of onsite information. The small exhibition next to the excavation pit is so small that you are practically trampled underfoot by the 15,000 other people who want to gawp at the first Qin emperor's model soldiers.

There is, however, the Hanyangling Museum and the tomb of emperor Jingdi, in a northern suburb of Xi'an. Emperor Jingdi may not have been as high profile as Qin Shi Huang of Terracotta Warrior fame, but he had a similar penchant for turning his army and several hundred of his livestock into clay figurines to keep him company in the afterlife. These aren't life-size figures like the Terracotta Warriors, but each foot-high archer, swordsman, goat, pig, horse or sheep is detailed and intricate.

This site is one of the most beautifully preserved I have been to, and not just in China, but across the world. Glass floors allow you to actually walk over and look right down into the burial pits, rather than trying to fight for a less-than-average vantage point. Several different examples of the figures are lined up in well-spaced-out cases with soft lighting that you feel is protecting them from damage. Signs on the walls offer detailed explanations of the history of the tomb, the emperor, the excavation, and the further preservation of the site, complete with pictures, diagrams and timelines. What's more, these are in English and French as well as Chinese.

The site itself is almost completely deserted, other than a handful of (mostly foreign) tourists. Most Chinese people prefer to go to the big-name sites - and fair enough. After all, the Forbidden City and the Terracotta Army have far more cultural meaning to Chinese people than Jingdi's tomb.. But it's almost as if the government has decided that, considering all the tourists are going to come anyway, they needn't bother to make these places a bit more accessible.

Over the past decade or so in the UK, historical sites and museums have really gone wild on the whole user-friendly idea. The British Museum now offers visitors hand-held computers with which visitors can scan exhibits for more detail. The Field of Culloden in Scotland, which in 1745 played host to a brutal battle between the Scottish Jacobites and the English army, is no longer just a field. Now it is a multimedia exhibition, where you can hear original diary entries and letters read out in a whole array of accents, press buttons on a screen to show Bonnie Prince Charlie's route in flashing LEDs, and plug yourself into a hand-held computer that links into a satellite to guide you around the battlefield.

It's a bit Disney, but at least you come away knowing a lot more about the Jacobite uprising than you do about any aspect of Chinese history after a couple of hours in the Forbidden City. It's particularly good for children too. As every parent knows, nothing engages a child's attention more than being allowed to press a button. At the risk of being corny, it could be that button that sets off a real interest in history.

According to China Daily, Forbidden City officials are planning to repair and renovate the Palace Museum. Access for wheelchairs and pushchairs will be introduced. "The distribution of exhibits and viewing access for streams of visitors will also be rearranged,” according to the paper.

I'm not expecting Chinese museum officials need to go completely wild with expensive holographic images of Ming emperors or multimedia displays of the Boxer Rebellion – not yet, anyway. But hopefully they - and museum officials across China - will take this as an opportunity to follow the example of the Hanyanling Museum in Xi'an. Maybe then, China will be able to open up its history in a way that people can enjoy - really enjoy.

Ellie Buchdahl is an editor on the 21st Century newspaper.