Nation's heritage on the line

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 August, 2011, 12:00am


Nothing is more precious to a nation than its culture, language and traditions. That is especially so for China, which, as one of the cradles of civilisation, has much to cherish and protect. It is understandable, then, that a series of scandals at the Palace Museum have caused a storm of public anger. As the custodian of a rich and proud heritage, it has an obligation to handle the past with the utmost care and it has clearly not been taking its duties as seriously as it should.

The museum in the Forbidden City has rarely been out of the spotlight since May, when a visitor showed up lax security by stealing nine valuable items on loan from a Hong Kong collection. That should have been reason to upgrade the manner in which artefacts are handled, but it seems that little extra effort was made. A blogger's claim last month that a researcher had almost four weeks earlier smashed a 1,000-year-old porcelain plate was acknowledged by administrators to be true. They have denied a string of other allegations: that four other relics were damaged, that a rare Qing dynasty wooden screen was broken (as a magazine reported), that hush money was paid to cover up the embezzlement of ticket sales, and that five Song-era letters bought at auction were later sold for a profit. Intentions to turn a hall into an exclusive club for wealthy patrons caused further controversy.

These are not matters to be taken lightly: the museum is the caretaker of the nation's heritage and the incidents raise doubts about its ability to play that role properly. But while that is worrying, there is as much cause for concern that its operations are largely secret. The breakage of the plate was covered up until it was made known by the blogger, who also aired allegations of incidents dating back to 2006. Unlike the world's other major cultural institutions, it does not make known to the public its finances, plans and minutes of meetings.

Beyond a lack of transparency, there are also problems with management and governance. Just 10 per cent of mainland museum workers have university degrees and a fraction have the professional and technical skills to handle artefacts. The deficit has prompted the State Administration of Cultural Heritage to call for the lifting of standards through the establishment of a vocational qualification system to find staff. With training will come the professionalism that is lacking.

The Forbidden City acquired its name from being a no-go area when the emperor lived there. Its name has taken on new meaning, with the museum not being open about its activities and responding poorly to the public's demands. While this continues, there will always be a risk of more damage and mismanagement. For the sake of China's culture and heritage, the system has to be revamped.