Museum shelves galore
In 2009, a new museum opened its doors to the public on the mainland every three days. In 2010, the numbers tripled. There was a new museum opening every day - a total of 395 in a single year.
Shan Jixiang, director of Beijing's Palace Museum, sees the 21st century as the era of museums, but he does not welcome the boom. Quantity doesn't equal quality, he says.
Many of those new museums are cold, rigid structures that house boring rows of ancient ceramics and scrolls, he points out. 'Government officials tend to spend extravagantly and build lavishly, but they have forgotten that the essence of museums is to pay tribute to our history and heritage and educate the next generation,' Shan (pictured right) says.
Visitors, meanwhile, have become ever more demanding. Shan says it is time for the industry to review and improve its standards. His ideal museum is 'scientific yet entertaining, content-rich yet memorable'.
Museums should not be limited to displaying exhibits behind glass cases. There is a need for more diverse themes, such as airplanes, and creative locations, such as converting famous buildings into memorial museums.
A museum of an ancient shipwreck submerged in the Pearl River is a good example. Nanhai No 1 was sunk near the starting point of China's Marine Silk Road. It is believed to contain 60,000 to 80,000 pieces of precious goods, especially ceramics. Visitors can see the boat underwater even as archaeologists continue with their excavation.
Shan would also like to see at least one museum for every one of the 22 ethnic minorities with a population of fewer than 100,000 people on the mainland. The smallest group is the Hezhen in the far northeast who number below 2,000 people. A museum can preserve their fading culture.
But not just any old museum. Shan says some provincial museums store exhibits in places without regulated temperature and humidity. This can damage the valuable artefacts, he adds. The structures are not earthquake-proof, either.
He wants a more scientific management of museums. He supports the government's project to build 100 centralised storerooms to relocate exhibits from less well-equipped venues. This effort saved about 5,000 pieces of ceramics in a museum in Sichuan ( ) from damage when a quake hit in 2007.
More resources should be allocated to discover and protect potential heritage, Shan suggests. Often, farmers in rural areas sell off ancient treasures they accidentally unearth to smugglers.
But, thanks to recent efforts, more people are aware of the potential cultural and scientific value of such finds. In 2003, five farmers contacted archaeologists at a nearby museum after finding antique bronze tableware buried beneath their fields. The relics were later confirmed to date back to around 2,000 years.
'We regarded the farmers as heroes. We invited them to the opening ceremony of the new collection at the museum and rewarded them,' Shan says.
The case attracted widespread attention. Soon more farmers came forward to report their discoveries.
About 70 per cent of the museums are funded by the government, with the rest run by private organisations.
If authorities diversify the management of museums, everyone will benefit from better-quality exhibits, Shan says.