Brother Pengpeng and his mission to get children flocking into China’s museums

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 March, 2017, 10:33am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 March, 2017, 5:48pm

A chance visit to the National Museum in Beijing 14 years ago led Zhang Peng, then a law student , to volunteer to guide children around the site. He has spent most his spare time since then acting as a guide at the museum. Zhang, 33, who is known as Brother Pengpeng to schoolchildren, spoke to Frank Tang about the motivation for his voluntary work and his decision to set up his own business in the museum industry.

What made you interested in working in museums?

I was born in a small county in west China’s Shaanxi province and seldom had the chance to go to big museums in my childhood, or develop much of an interest in them. In 2003, during the spring term of my freshman year at the China University of Political Science and Law, I went to visit the National Museum, one of Beijing’s must-see tourist attractions. It cost me 10 yuan to buy a ticket at that time and I came across a volunteer recruitment notice. When I knocked at the door of the recruitment office, I was told the application deadline had already passed and they were conducting interviews. I managed to persuade the recruitment officer to give me a chance. I got an interview immediately and was luckily chosen. My first thought was that it would be a great opportunity to learn about China’s ancient civilisation free of charge and being a volunteer was also a kind of social interaction. But after four or five years, volunteering became an indispensable part of my life. I feel a responsibility to do this work, especially after I found that children’ interest and curiosity were sometimes ruined because they don’t get much of an introduction to these topics from their parents.

How did your first tours go?

I received training from the National Museum, but was still nervous during first tours. I can clearly remember my first assignment guiding a Tang dynasty (618-907) themed exhibition tour. It took me 40 minutes to explain everything, rather than the required one hour because I forgot to introduce many important cultural relics. The National Museum has a very good, maybe China’s best, volunteer training and management programme.

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It keeps attracting new people to join. I’m now the deputy chief of its volunteer team, responsible for recruitment. We received more than 1,200 applications this year, but only a few dozen will be eventually selected. When I train volunteers or my team members now, I always ask them to first recite a draft to ensure accuracy, then they can turn that into their own form of language and apply it to different occasions and audiences.

Did your parents support your decision to become a museum volunteer and your ultimate decision to work full-time in the museum sector?

My father works for a local court and he had long hoped I would become a judge. My decision to be a volunteer puzzled him at the time. Why should I take a two-hour bus from the campus in the suburbs of Changping to the National Museum in downtown Beijing every weekend to do something for free, instead of earning money tutoring or joining the student union for leadership training? But my parents respected my decision at the time and became more supportive when they saw the warm feedback I received after an exhibition at the China Millennium Monument in 2006. After working for a law firm, a Japanese camera maker and a traditional Chinese medicine producer in Beijing, I eventually decided to kick off a museum education business. They now feel relieved that I have chosen my interest to work in and that my career is moving smoothly.

Do you regret giving up working in the legal profession?

I majored in law and minored in sociology at university. The first taught me logic and reasoning to help me pass on my views to an audience, while the second brings a new perspective on how to see the world. I’m very grateful for what my studies taught me. But museum work is a dream in my heart. In reality I have to work hard to earn money to support myself, but my dream is to go to the museum at the weekend and introduce exhibits happily to school kids.

It was a natural choice for me to walk a different path from my high school and university classmates. Without the rapid development of China’s museum sector and the integration of family and museum education over the past several years, I might not have entered this business.

What is the biggest problem facing museum education in China?

All parents know that museums are a good place to go. What they don’t know is how to explain the numerous exhibits, make their children understand them and more importantly take an interest in them. China’s museums have grown rapidly in the past decade. However, until recently they emphasised the construction of hardware, such as venues and exhibitions.

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The importance of social education lagged behind. One example is there is no single book to tell school children how to approach museums, despite the government’s constant call for more visits. There are also few picture books on Chinese culture and its ancient civilization. The biggest problem is the lack of museum education professionals. Museum staff don’t know children’s needs, while schools don’t know much about museums.

How does your approach to museum education differ from others?

We had a survey of 800 parents on the goal of their museum tours. About 48 per cent of people said that it was for knowledge, 24 per cent opted for general interest, while about 27 per cent chose helping them to learn. What we are doing is to cultivate their learning habits. I stress that parents accompany their children to attend my classes and tours. I’m just a guide to trigger their interest and parents need to follow suit to keep encouraging them. My team organises museum tours in Beijing, Xian, Chengdu and Shanghai and in countries like Greece, Egypt, Uzbekistan and Israel.

How is your business run?

My business started in February 2015. The online part is a public service. We are now cooperating with about 100 museums nationwide to develop audio guides and learning lists tailored for children. A handset app will be created later to integrate these into an ancient China civilization series. The offline business, mainly referring to weekend lectures and museum tours, is a commercial venture. I have 15 full-time employees from different backgrounds and I need revenue to support them.

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The business still loses money after two years in operation and faces the pressure of office rents, but the financial loss is small. It still has incoming revenue and we have an angel investor. I rejected all the other venture capitalists as I was afraid they could bring more quantitative targets and may even regard my public service work as an area for business growth. I’m quite cautious and am still exploring.

Does your membership of the All-China Youth Federation help you win government projects?

I do have some government projects. For instance, some museums have entrusted us to compile books. My team has looked after some parent-children publications for the government organised Beijing Reading Festival and participates in family projects for the All-China Women’s Federation.

But look around here. I pay a big rent for this office, even though I could get a place from the government free of charge. I want to embrace the market.

How do you identify yourself - a museum volunteer or museum education businessman?

Personally I regard myself as a promoter of museum education, hoping to bring a group of young people together to maximise the use of public resources for children’s study. I will continue to write books and teach to meet the market’s needs. This year I plan to reduce the number of public lectures and spend more energy on training young people who are devoted to educational businesses of different kinds. I hope to share my experiences and failures in dealing with kids.