A Canadian in Beijing: Capital Museum A Total Snooze

I suppose if I weren’t so tired today our class trip to the Beijing Central Museum (or, ????????????: Shoudu Bowuguan) would be more interesting to me. As it stands, we’ve been here for two hours and I’m bored out of my mind. I’ve even returned to the bus early (the eventual meeting place) because I couldn’t stand the sterility of the experience any longer. My legs were so tired from the endless walking that I’m even sitting on the ground out here and, as you know, that’s not something I advocate in Beijing!

I’m just not into it. What does this say about me?

I’m actually really interested in history and I find stories of the past fascinating. I love to learn about the places I visit and how they have come to develop into what they are under my feet and before my eyes. Where a place has come from and how it has journeyed and why — I love that stuff. So, why couldn’t I get into this museum, I wonder?

The museum is a beautiful modern building made of glass and marble and full of architectural wonder. It has only been open in this current location since December 19, 2006. It is 60,000 square metres in size, five floors with escalators and elevators between each and it can accommodate up to 2,000 visitors per day. It’s majestic, really, and the photos really don’t do it justice.

It’s gorgeous. Every display is well-placed and “just so.” In fact, I think that’s the problem. I have this overwhelming feeling that this place has been over thought, and now the information being communicated about China’s history also seems over thought, as though a huge committee sat around a giant table both approving and vetoing what I should or should not be told as a visitor. Or perhaps it’s more like what I could or could not be told. I became more and more agitated by the descriptions of history with every room that I eventually just found a bench inside and watched people instead.

But, what do I know? My learning is as limited as the next person’s – it’s through my Canadian cultural lens, education, reading material, etc. – and so I can’t claim to know what “really happened.” Still, I know well enough that the rise of the republic in China was not all glory and accomplishment. There was no mention of what the people went through throughout this transition (i.e. “The Cultural Revolution”) or even what they faced throughout the “Great Leap Forward” campaign just following the end of Feudalism in China. I saw no mention of the destruction of historical artifacts, literature, cultural relics; no mention of deaths by starvation or long-term incarceration; no mention of the dislocation of people and families throughout both movements. At least, no mention that I could see in English.

The signs in English were not as complete as the signs in Chinese, either. I know enough of this language to know that, but my ability to read all of the history-related characters was pretty limited and so I had to rely on these English translations which were, of course, full of written errors. I was really shocked to see such mistakes in such an official building. This is the Capital Museum of Beijing! I’m shocked that these errors made it through and I do hope that correcting these is on the “to do” list before the Olympics. I’m sure they’ll have lots of visitors through this museum at that time who will require the English as much (or more) than I did.

[I wished I had some sort of guide, but the computer kiosks offering more detail were entirely in Chinese and I didn’t learn until later that I could have rented an English headset (like I did at the Summer Palace) to accompany my walk. Oh well, I suppose I was meant to experience it as I was and these are my honest impressions.]

Last night, I went out again with my musician friends and checked out live music at Mao Live House (and played a couple of songs too) and so I really didn’t get much sleep. After awhile, my fatigue and my irritation with these language errors (not to mention what seemed to me to be an incomplete reflection of historical events) combined to make me stop reading these annoying signs altogether. Instead, I wandered slowly and aimlessly, looking at displays and snapping pictures until even this lackadaisical passivity got boring.

What’s more, (if you’ll permit me to complain just once more about this museum!), the displays were hardly interactive at all. There were lots of paintings, wood/clay models to peer at as well as plenty of items behind glass, but there was very little for the museum goer to do besides wander and snap pictures. I’ve perhaps become spoiled by places like The Science Centre in Toronto, but I’d have to say that my one trip to the Beijing Capital Museum is plenty for me. I don’t need to go back.

Time to board the bus that will take me “home” to my quiet dorm room so that I can take a nap.

May as well continue this snooze fest!