Beijing museum-goers choose propaganda over Enlightenment | Arts | DW | 19.04.2011
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Beijing museum-goers choose propaganda over Enlightenment

Hot debate in Germany, indifference in Beijing: the German-sponsored exhibition of Enlightenment art has hardly drawn any visitors in the Chinese capital. Expensive ticket and catalog fees are not inspiring interest.

A security guard in the Chinese National Museum in Beijing, at the 'Art of Enlightenment' exhibition

This guard would be less bored in the exhibition downstairs

If you want to go to the Chinese National Museum, you have to get up early. Long queues start forming at the west entrance of the imposing building at around 8:30 am. All the visitors have to pass through a security check, like at the airport, and young men in uniforms ensure that the visitors don't bring in any beverages or cigarette lighters.

It takes about an hour to get inside. At that point, most museum-goers head straight for the huge political exhibition on the ground floor, entitled "China's Path to National Resurrection."

There are no signs directing visitors to the Enlightenment exhibition, which cost German taxpayers more than 6 million euros ($8.7 million) and was intended to be a highlight of Germany's cultural foreign policy.

There is no mention of Enlightenment on the large information board in the foyer; posters on the side point out bronze sculptures on the second floor and Buddhist statues on show.

Only visitors who take the escalator to the first floor will find the exhibition, "The Art of the Enlightenment." This afternoon, not many have done so.

Enlightenment who?

One young student, standing alone in front of etchings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, had a positive impression. "You can learn something about the sciences, the courtly ceremonies, the normal people's lives," she said. "The exhibition gives a kind of introduction to a lot of areas."

The 22-year-old student is the only one showing much interest in the exhibition. The few other visitors seem to have stumbled upon it by accident and are more interested in seeing the newly renovated museum itself.

"I just wanted to see paintings," said one woman, adding that she wasn't interested in learning more about the Enlightenment. "These oil paintings are very lively; the style is very different from ours."

Inside the exhibition 'Art of Enlightenment' at the Chinese National Museum in Beijing

While visitors may be unfamiliar with Enlightenment's ideals, many have seen the works of art before

Perhaps the entrance fee of 30 yuan - more than 3 euros or $4.60 - has scared off potential visitors. The rest of the museum is free. Or maybe the show wasn't advertised enough. Many people in China may recognize the masterpieces presented in the exhibition, but have never heard the word "Enlightenment."

"I'm not interested in Enlightenment," said an older man and he wandered through the last of the three exhibition rooms. "I didn't want to come at all at first, but then I heard there were paintings from Dresden, so I changed my mind."

Expensive explanation

The woman selling tickets at the entrance to "The Art of Enlightenment" doesn't have much to do. She says that around 200 people came each day, somewhat more on the weekends, but organizers don't have official visitor numbers.

The exhibition catalog, which explains the works and their deeper philosophical significance, can be purchased at the cash register as well. But at a price of over 100 euros, hardly anyone can afford it.

Just one floor below, the national propaganda exhibition attracts some 8,000 visitors a day. There, the accomplishments of socialism are glorified. However, there is nothing to be seen about the Great Chinese Famine from the 1950s, the persecution that accompanied the Cultural Revolution, and suppression of the democratic movement in 1989.

It is apparent that in this museum Enlightenment is a foreign concept.

Author: Ruth Kirchner / kjb

Editor: Eva Wutke

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