Forbidden City? Not if head of China’s top museum has any say

President of Beijing’s Palace Museum is serious about making it a public treasure, opening new areas of the facility and pushing to make admission free

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 June, 2017, 11:10pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 June, 2017, 11:10pm

The Palace Museum, a symbol of China and the most visited museum in the world last year, would be open to the public for free if its president, Shan Jixiang, had his way.

In a live webcast of an interview with People’s Daily last week, Shan said the museum, known as the Forbidden City, was not considering a price hike. On the contrary, the museum might even be dropping its already low admission fee.

“We would consider free admission in future,” Shan said.

The Forbidden City, the imperial palace during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, is a must-see tourist ­attraction in Beijing.

It charges 60 yuan (US$9) per person for admission, far lower than the 15 (US$17) for the Louvre in Paris or the £23 (US$29) for Buckingham Palace in London. But it has become so crowded that the museum started to impose a daily cap on visitors from 2015, with a maximum of 80,000 allowed in each day.

The palace, which served as the residence for 24 emperors from its completion in 1420 until the forced departure of China’s last emperor, Puyi, in 1924, is a UN world heritage site. It therefore must balance preservation and greater public exposure.

More areas within the Forbidden City are being opened up to visitors, and more of its treasures can be seen in exhibitions. The open area has increased from 48 per cent in 2012 to 76 per cent last year. In future, 86 per cent of the compound will be accessible.

But efforts are also being made to better protect the huge collection of ancient wood-brick buildings in the heart of Beijing, with the Forbidden City celebrating its 600th anniversary in 2020.

The museum is also trying to develop a new site in the northern part of the capital, as well as a Hong Kong Palace Museum in the West Kowloon Cultural District, a project that has stirred controversy and is expected to be complete by 2022.

“The northern branch of the museum is under construction. The completion of the Hong Kong Palace Museum in a few years will also present a huge amount of the treasures from the museum,” Shan said.

Shan, a former director at the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, said he was trying to “make the heritage alive and relevant to people’s lives”.

In looking after the old palace, holding 53,000 paintings, 75,000 pieces of calligraphy and 28,000 rubbings of stone inscriptions, Shan said his two biggest challenges were “not enough space” and “too many visitors”. As many as 16 million visitors entered the Forbidden City last year.

To give tourists more access, in the last three years Shan has had 130 modern buildings within the palace demolished, and relocated the offices of hundreds of staff outside of its red walls. Even Shan’s own office is no longer in the Forbidden City.

He has also banned smoking, demanded that garbage be picked up promptly and seen 1,200 wooden benches put in to keep visitors from resting by railings.