Thor's China Diary

When is a Museum a Museum?

@1 May 2000

A museum is a place you visit in another country, another city, but never in your own. Isn't it? Not always. When I was a teenager the Sydney Technological Museum was one of my favourite haunts (in those times dad's taxes made it "free"; the so-called user-pays disease hadn't crippled casual access). The Tech Museum was full of marvelous machines, ancient and modern. They worked in clever ways when you pressed a button.

Wuhan is a big city - 7 million in the greater region - so it should have museums. Well, there is one, the Natural History Museum, newly rebuilt down by East Lake, and felt to be so precious that a wizened little man gives you plastic shower caps to put over your shoes before you enter. It is an archeological showcase for the ancient Chu culture of Hubei, and quite interesting in its narrow way.

I'd love to go on and talk about all the other insightful spots. But that's it. The two or three thousand years of remaining human-life-lived in Wuhan and its environs is lost in the dust. It is scarcely given even a passing reference elsewhere in the city. For two years I have probed students and acquaintances in vain for some insight into their city's earlier life. The best they can manage is a slogan or two, and a mute gesture at the Yellow Crane Tower. School "history" in China is a discouraging business of memorizing a few dynasty dates, quickly forgotten after the exams. There are prescribed homilies on "the burden of Chinese history" whenever the embarrassing subject of China's "developing nation" status comes up -- a strangely schizophrenic justification. However, in truth, this is a nation with no history, because if history is to live anywhere at all it must have detail and substance in the minds of people. The only thing vaguely resembling a remembered past for Chinese peoples are glitzy pseudo documentaries and historical romances on television, where truth is a quantum invented on the spur of the moment; (yup', George Orwell got it exactly right in his classic novel of the future [sic!!] "1984").

Well, I thought yesterday that at last my quest might yield some treasure. On a more or less English language map of Wuhan I had come across something called the "Technology and Science Museum". My waiban in the university's international office vigorously denied that there was any such place. But maps don't lie, do they? A young Chinese friend had been persuaded to ring the museum: yes they definitely existed, and were featuring an exhibition of Wuhan's development over the last ten years. Wonderful. My friend was dubious, but agreed to come along. It was a bit out of the way in NW Wuhan, but two buses and a taxi eventually got us to the outer gate of what looked like yet another State-owned enterprise. That is, a multistory building dressed in ugly white tiles + the normal complement of grey apartment blocks for hangers on. The gatekeeper was certainly surprised to get visitors. He gestured vaguely across the parking area to a stairway entrance.

Inside the foyer a colloquium of cleaning ladies (?) was in full swing. Eight of them heavily into discussing the doings of their neighbours. Our appearance caused consternation, or so it seemed to me. Arms and bodies fluttered in a dozen directions, and a crescendo of interrogation descended upon my guide. She graciously fenced her way through this barrage, and after five minutes or so the eight cleaning ladies resolved into eight ticket sellers who condescended to admit us to the premises for an outrageous sixteen yuan apiece. With Chinese hospitality at stake, my young partner insisted on paying Y32 for us both. A big chunk out of her weekly budget. You can't argue with this sort of thing. Eight pairs of arms waved us to another entrance fifty meters away. It was a prophetic separation of the cash squeeze and the goods. They knew something that we didn't.

We entered a very empty room indeed. Around the walls were pinned posters that could have been fuzzy blow-ups from one of those computer encyclopaedias like Encarta: the great scientists of history etc., with a very occasional Chinese face slipped in to preserve the ethnic confidence of school children (captive, and presumably the only normal visitors; this was a holiday though: hence nobody except us). Down the centre of the room was a row of paste-up boards with yet more posters of the same variety. Hm, what about the special exhibition on Wuhan's progress? That was on the third floor. We found a dirty staircase, walls of flaking cream & brown paint. The second floor was a re-run of the first. The third? Well, you must have seen the publicity photos that manufacturing companies love to put in their entrance foyers. You know, Mao Tse Tung heartily grasping the hand of the general manager in front of a pickle factory. President Zhang congratulating the workers in a pharmaceutical plant... A whole room full of badly blown-up photos along these lines. Total rubbish.

Well, we still had the fourth floor. This was real innovation. Blown-up photos of a clutch of professors out of Wuhan's universities. Underneath each a blue telephone through which came a scratchy tape recording. Each great man heartily congratulated himself on his contribution to China's glory. I recognized the first name, but not the photo. He is currently President of my last year's university, and that photo must have been taken, well, at least twenty years ago.

Wuhan has done it again. The world's first technical and science museum without a single explanation of how anything works, and without a single artifact. My guide was deeply embarrassed. Her honour had been impugned. It's not so bad, I reassured her. You have made a noble contribution of thirty-two yuan towards reducing the nation's insolvency. On the other hand, she just might have bought two bottles of Coca Cola for each of eight ticket sellers.

"When is a museum a museum?" copyrighted to Thor May 2000; all rights reserved
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