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Chinese museums impose strict rules as visitors flock to blockbuster art exhibitions

Once a place for tour guides to take groups on rainy days, record numbers are joining the queues thanks to social media promotion and more funding

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 September, 2017, 8:30am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 September, 2017, 10:24pm

Like many people at the Palace Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City last week, Gao Junxuan made a special trip to see a painting she had long admired but never had the chance to view in person.

She travelled from the city of Rizhao, in southeastern Shandong province, making sure she was outside the museum early, before it opened. Gao waited for three hours before she finally laid eyes on the 11.9-metre scroll painting – and she said it was well worth the effort.

The only surviving work of Song dynasty (960-1279) painter Wang Ximeng, A Panorama of Rivers and Mountains is one of China’s best known blue and green landscape paintings.

It has been on public display just three times before and is being shown in its entirety for the first time at the exhibition, which runs until December 14, along with 85 other blue-green landscape paintings.

Gao said she was immediately struck by the incredible brightness of the colours highlighting the mountains and water.

But she did not have long to meditate on the masterpiece – it is so popular that visitors are given just five minutes to enjoy it before they are ushered along.

China’s museums, once the refuge of rainy-day tour groups, have attracted record numbers of visitors in recent years, driven largely by social media promotion and increased government funding. As a result, they have had to introduce strategies to deal with the crowds and ever longer waiting times. While curators welcome the new interest, some regret that it often seems reserved for the show-stoppers.

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Wang Zhongxu, curator of the blue-green landscapes exhibition, said the fact that more people were attending exhibitions showed there was growing interest in the arts, but the fact they tended to make a beeline for a particular painting presented a new challenge for museums.

“We need to improve the aesthetic taste of the public so that they learn to appreciate other paintings in an exhibition,” Wang said. “We don’t encourage visitors to rush in to see just one painting. Other paintings in this exhibition deserve respect and quiet appreciation too.”

As well as capping the viewing time at five minutes per visitor for A Panorama of Rivers and Mountains, they are also grouped into 16 time slots – each with 150 people – in the mornings. There are no restrictions or queues for other paintings in the exhibition.

For Gao, the cost of travelling to Beijing and time spent queuing did not take away from the experience. She said she was thrilled to see the work – which was painted by Wang Ximeng at the age of 18 – in real life, even if the strict time limit meant she missed some of its finer details.

“No matter how well you get to know the painting after studying it online, nothing can compare to the wonder of actually seeing the painting in person,” Gao said. “I don’t think this should be assessed in terms of time or money – it’s a court painting that we probably would never have been able to see in the old days.”

Museum visitor numbers in China have grown from 637 million in 2013 to 900 million last year, according to the Ministry of Culture, as more people brave the crowds to spend a few minutes with the most famous exhibits.

Information about the exhibitions is also easier to come by thanks to social media – the Palace Museum has more than 3.9 million followers on Weibo alone, and a show featuring a famous painting like Wang’s will quickly generate a huge buzz.

Visitors reportedly had to line up for six hours at the Shanghai Museum to see a travelling exhibition over summer that was put on by the British Museum, “A History of the World in 100 Objects”. Two years ago in Beijing, people waited eight to 12 hours to see “Shiqu Baoji”, a collection of imperial calligraphy and paintings at the Palace Museum.

The average wait for “A Panorama of Rivers and Mountains: Blue-Green Landscape Paintings from Across Chinese History” was three hours before the museum started arranging visitors into time slots.

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Peng Peng, a campaigner for museum education for children, put the growing popularity of exhibitions down to increased government funding and support.

Funding for museums and research institutes has risen from 16.6 billion yuan in 2011 to 35.4 billion last year. Across the country, there are now 1,000 more museums than there were five years ago – the total is 4,800 – and 4,246 of those offer free admission, according to the ministry.

Free entry to a growing list of museums has also played a big part in getting more visitors through the doors and changing their behaviour, according to Huang Chen, director of social education and publicity at the National Museum of China in Beijing.

“Free admission has made a great contribution to the growing demand for cultural experiences and it’s also helped to educate people when it comes to appreciating art,” Huang said, adding that museum-goers were now more selective about which exhibitions to see.

“Of course, some people will visit once and that’s enough. Others find museums are a great place to go regularly, to learn and soak up some culture,” he said.

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But there were also more high-quality exhibitions coming to mainland China, and not just to the first-tier cities, Peng said. He gave the examples of a collection of cultural relics from overseas museums that is on show in Chongqing, and an exhibition of sculptures from China and India on display in Sichuan province.

Peng also said there was a renewed interest in cultural pursuits and people were more enthusiastic about visiting museums.

“An obvious sign of this is the increasing number of locals who go to museums – it’s usually more locals than visitors,” Peng said. “Museums used to be a tourist attraction, a place for tour guides to take groups during bad weather. Now, more and more locals are visiting museums. They see museums as places for lifelong learning and visit several times a year to see exhibitions.”

The Palace Museum, for example, had for a long time been seen as a tourist attraction, but now people saw it as somewhere to go when there was a good exhibition on, he said.

Peng has worked as a volunteer guide at the National Museum of China since 2003 and has seen first-hand the growing interest in museums.

His company, Museum by the Ear, runs tours and creates audio guides, including the one for “A History of the World in 100 Objects” when it was on display in Beijing and Shanghai. He said that guide had been played 1.47 million times during the exhibition period.

In the queue for the landscapes exhibition in Beijing, Jane Xu, a university lecturer from Urumqi in the far western Xinjiang region, said she had only started going to museums in recent years.

“I wasn’t really interested in art when I was younger. But now that I’m in my 30s, I find myself more drawn to cultural things,” said Xu, who was in the capital on a work trip and decided to see the show. “This is a golden opportunity because the painting is so rarely exhibited – you never know when it will be on display again.”

Xu said she shared exhibition and art information on social media, but there were far fewer shows in Urumqi compared to cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

“I always check to see what exhibitions are on when I go on a work trip,” Xu said. “I post pictures and thoughts on social media after I see a show but I block ... whoever might think I’m just showing off. Other people like to see my posts – people who also love these paintings but can’t see them for themselves.”

First-year university student Liu Ziyu was also in the queue – but she had come prepared with water and lunch to eat while she waited. Liu said she had never heard of either the painting or the artist, but one of her lecturers had convinced her to travel the 40km from the Beijing University of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Fangshan district to see the exhibition.

“It’s enough to just have the experience,” Liu said.