Chinese museum’s road to success paved with gold – first private museum in China to hold an independent exhibition abroad

This article was first published by China Daily.

A biennial gettogether of Asian and European movers and shakers gave a fledgling private institution just the start it needed

It will go down as one of the most pivotal meetings in recent history for private museums in China, one resulting in their demonstrating that it is not just state institutions with seemingly boundless wealth that can have great sway in the world of culture.

Enter more than 20 directors of museums from Asia and Europe, and talk soon turned to how the fine institutions they were associated with could help each other in advancing their causes and cultural exchange as well.

Shaanxi is well endowed with museums, and not surprisingly one early port of call for the visitors was the Xi’an Qujiang Museum of Fine Arts, a couple of kilometers down the road in Xi’an from the main conference center.

Compared with venerable state-funded museums such as Shaanxi History Museum, which is among the largest and most important museums in China and houses hundreds of thousands of cultural relics, the privately run Xi’an Qujiang Museum of Fine Arts is a much more modest affair and in fact had opened just 15 months before the 2013 forum.

“To our surprise, when those Asian and European countries were here, they were very keen on working with us on exhibitions,” says Lin Shaoping, vice-director of Xi’an Qujiang Museum of Fine Arts.

The location of the museum is itself unusual, in a hotel, The Westin Xi’an, near the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, one of the most symbolic sites built during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). As unassuming as the museum’s 7,000 square meters are compared with the grand state institutions, it nevertheless houses more than 1,000 rare porcelain, murals, statuary and other ancient objects, and its Mural Conservation and Restoration Center is there, too.

From its very opening the museum was a pacesetter, one of its first exhibitions, titled Origin and History of Ancient Chinese Murals, featuring 88 panels, 67 of them originals, from the Neolithic period to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It was considered the first of its kind in China, recounting Chinese history through murals.

The exhibition was curated by Zhou Tianyou, a former history professor who had been director of the Shaanxi History Museum.

Soon after the visit, Lin received an invitation from the National Museum of Slovenia in Ljubljana, Slovenian capital, hoping to display its exhibits.

“This seemed like a hopelessly impossible dream for us, because previously only state-funded museums in China had put on exhibitions overseas,” Lin says.”But we remained in touch with the National Museum in Ljubljana and tried to figure out how we could make it happen.”

Those efforts continued for several years, and eventually paid off when in August 2018-with the considerable help of Shaanxi province and the National Cultural Heritage Administration-a boutique exhibition featuring 145 pieces of gold jewelry and tableware of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) opened at the National Museum in Ljubljana that lasted six months.

Reveling in being the first private museum in China to hold an independent exhibition abroad, Xi’an Qujiang Museum of Fine Arts managed to have about 140 pieces of treasures brought to Xi’an from Slovenia for a six-month exhibition from May 2019.

“It was the first exhibition about Slovenia held in China and offered Chinese audiences a great look at the country,” Lin says. “It was also exciting to know that tens of thousands of people viewed an exhibition of gold jewelry and tableware of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in Slovenia. Its population is just 2 million so that number of visitors was huge.”

However, the exhibition’s influence transcended Slovenia’s borders, with many people from the country’s neighbors such as Hungary and Italy visiting the exhibition, meaning cultural exchange was being well and truly promoted in the heart of Central Europe.

Zhou, director of Xi’an Qujiang Museum of Fine Arts since it was founded, says Chinese goldware is renowned for its exquisite and unique artisanship. Goldware from Europe was introduced to China along the Silk Road, the ancient trade route that linked China with the West thousands years ago.

“During the Ming Dynasty, the techniques of making goldware were mature and the design was very Chinese, reflecting the beauty of Chinese culture,” Zhou says.

After their first stop in Slovenia, the Xi’an Qujiang Museum of Fine Arts’ Ming Dynasty gold treasures were displayed in the National History Museum of Romania in the Romanian capital, Bucharest, for four months from Nov 20, 2019 on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of China-Romania diplomatic relations.

Treasures from Romania were to have been exhibited in the Xi’an Qujiang Museum of Fine Arts in July 2020 but that was put back a couple of months because of the pandemic.

The Ming Dynasty gold treasures are now on display in the National Museum of Bucovina, Suceava, Romania’s second-largest city, an exhibition that will end this month.

“Xi’an Qujiang Museum of Fine Arts has build a solid reputation thanks to these exhibitions at home and abroad,” Lin says.”For a museum like ours it was a matter of pride and promoting what we do.

“Many Chinese museums, both state-funded and private, have great collections of gold treasures. For overseas audiences, goldware from ancient China is visually striking, and the great thing is that it then encourages them to find out more about the Chinese culture behind the exhibits.”.

On May 18, 2018, International Museum Day, Liu Yuzhu, director of the National Cultural Heritage Administration, gave a speech at the Nanjing Museum in which he talked of the rapid growth of private museums. Of the 5,535 museums in China at the end of 2019, 1,710 museums were private.

In 2019, 28,600 museum and art exhibitions were held in China, attracting about 1.2 billion visitors, National Cultural Heritage Administration says. About a tenth of those, 119 million people, were visitors to exhibitions in private museums.

For these museums, the quality of exhibits and the legality of its collections are crucial, Zhou says.

“All the collections we have were bought through legal auctions abroad by the museum’s founder, Peter Kwok. That guarantees the legality of our exhibitions at home and abroad.”

Serving as the capital of more than 10 dynasties, including the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) and the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Xi’an attracts tourists from home and abroad with its world-famous tourism sites, including Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum, the home of the Terracotta Warriors.

Over the past eight years the Xi’an Qujiang Museum of Fine Arts has won wide recognition and a firm following. The venue has tried to support itself financially by attracting more admirers with the likes of public lectures and workshops and combining its operations with the five-star hotel.

Eighty percent to 90 percent of the museum’s ticket revenue comes from tourists every year, Lin says. Students from local universities, middle schools and kindergartens are also frequent visitors.

The running costs of such a museum are obviously steep, and that was reflected in a hefty admission price of 350 yuan, but the management has recently halved that, clearly hoping to draw considerably more visitors.

Last year its exhibitions included The Soul Beyond Painting, featuring 51 rare handmade silver plates and ceramics by Pablo Picasso and an interactive exhibition combining works by Vincent van Gogh with technology.

Because of the pandemic, the technology teams that worked for the exhibitions last year could not travel to Xi’an, and Lin and her team finished installing the exhibitions themselves by working with the technology experts over the internet.

Last month the museum opened an exhibition on Impressionism, which displays four authentic works by Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Edgar Degas.

An interactive zone is also provided for visitors to experience artworks supported by technology.

“We believe that private museums play an important role of providing education about the world’s cultures,” Lin says. “The road ahead is long and challenging, but it’s worth making it happen.”