A sustainable legacy: Palace Museum at 90

A sustainable legacy: Palace Museum at 90
Photo taken on Oct 8, 2015 shows Buddha statues at the new exhibition area at the Palace Museum in Beijing, captial of China. [Photo/Xinhua]

Established on Oct 10, 1925, the Palace Museum in Beijing, also known as the Forbidden City, has come to symbolize Chinese culture all round the world.

"In the late 1980s, people had to pay one yuan to visit the museum," said former director Zhang Zhongpei. "This was no laughing matter in those days. Local people barely earned a few dozen yuan per month at that time, but it didn't stop them from visiting in great numbers and nothing changed even when we tripled the price in 1988."

The Palace Museum has come a long way in the last 90 years to become one of the "must-sees" for any visitor to China. As Zhang recalls, many of the artifacts were previously scattered over other sites and some of the buildings were occupied by other institutions, which seriously compromised the integrity of the site.

In the 21st century, this lack of completeness became a major problem. Zheng Xinmiao, director of the museum between 2002 and 2012, has some specific memories of the issue.

"In 2002, I noticed a small hole in an emperor's saddle and asked the staff about it," Zheng recalled. "I was told the watch which was originally embedded there had been taken out and lent to a watch museum."

Realizing the significance of keeping the collection together, in 2004, Zheng began the long process of curating and arranging display items logically. After six years, thousands of artifacts had been sorted. "Many of us broke into tears when the job was done," Zheng said.

In 2011, a series of unsavory incidents happened in quick succession; many artifacts were stolen or damaged by visitors, highlighting the poor relationship and mutual understanding between the museum and its clientele.

Shan Jixiang, current director of the museum, has been responsible for a number of recent products, such as the museum's mobile app. Focused on the popularizing the Palace Museum brand, Shan's innovations raked in over 700 million yuan for the museum in 2014.

"It's no easy job being director of this museum," admitted Shan who, despite striving to bring the museum's marketing policy up to date, has never lost sight of his basic task. Appointed early in 2012, Shan has worn out more than 20 pairs of traditional cloth shoes patrolling the 9,000 rooms of the Forbidden City to have a clear view over the whole situation of the Palace.

"We have taken thousands of photos of buildings and other, trivial things. Whenever we find something wrong, we show the pictures to the staff, which has made them much more alert to encroaching imperfections."

Asked to talk about the future of the museum, the first word on Shan's lips is integrity. "Integrity is the key to a sustainable and fascinating museum. I just hope that we can maintain the integrity of the museum for another 90 years."

To celebrate its birthday, more areas will be opened to the public and previously unseen treasures put on display on Saturday.

Four new sections will be unveiled, including a palace that housed the emperor's mother, making 65 percent of the complex accessible to the public.