井底之蛙

5/20/2011

Managing History in China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:10 am

Historic Preservation is the process of  preserving historic stuff, mostly building and sites. China has lots of history. 5,000 years of it, in fact. Historical Preservation, or Cultural Resources Management, or whatever you want to call it is something they have less of as shown by recent events in the Great Within. Basically, the Beijing Forbidden City Cultural Development Company has been accused of setting up a special club for rich people inside the Forbidden City.

Preserving the past is tricky, since it is sometimes hard to figure out what needs to be preserved. It is also sometimes hard to figure out what ‘preserving’ might mean. It could mean ‘don’t touch anything’ but in practice somebody has to touch things in order to maintain them, and people do have to get in to look at things, or else what’s the point?

Even at this level things are more complected that you might think. What exactly -is- this site?  Versailles would not be itself without the gardens, but the park just to the west of the Forbidden City, once considered part of the grounds, was taken over by squatters in 1949. Do they have to be driven out and the pristine park of the past re-created? 1

The big problem though is money. History and the National Essence are priceless, and thus can’t be connected to money, which is dirty. No gift shops. No tacky tourist stuff. No guards in fake old uniforms. Pure, un-commercialized history. That of course is bunk. Every historical site sells stuff, in part because they need the cash and in part because the broad masses want it and helping people connect with the past is what these places do, and buying stuff is part of that. Also, your guests are humans. They need to eat and drink, and they enjoy both of these things a lot. The more of that you let them do it while looking at the history the better they will like it. So maybe some selling things is o.k., but you need to keep it tasteful.  So part of running a historical site is making money, but making it look like you are above money.2

This is particularly important when you are running something like the Forbidden City, a Top Class #1 tourist draw and source of national pride. Some time ago they drove Starbucks out of the palace. This struck most of my students as a good thing. We would not let commerce sully the Lincoln Memorial, why should the Chinese let money into the Forbidden City? Having been there I point out that the palace is enormous, and that having a few places to get a drink or buy some postcards or get a popsicle makes it a lot better. Hiring it out to a foreign company defiles the purity of the Chinese nation, however,  so it had to go.

The current brouhaha has something to do with lack of professionalism on the part of China’s Historical Preservation Financial Asset Management Teams.  Lots of foreign museums rent out space for parties or whatever. You just need to do it with a bit of class. China has a distinct lack of old money, so this is a problem. Good Cultural Managers can help with this by providing a touch of distinction to a commercial transaction, but unfortunately the ones at the Forbidden City can’t even manage a grammatically correct press statement. Of course it also has something to do with class resentments in contemporary China. If the Forbidden City belongs to the Chinese people why are some Chinese people getting to party there and the rest being stuck making electronics in Shenzhen? Plus given what I can find out online  about the entertainment habits of Chinese rich people I’m guessing that the club does not run to dry white wine and chamber music. Massive amounts of vile booze and lots of ladies of negotiable virtue sounds more likely.

Finally, I must add that I am a little disappointed with the Beijing Forbidden City Cultural Development Company. I could forgive the   for prostituting China’s cultural heritage or being sub-literates, but their ‘vengeance’ against the whistleblowers is pathetic. Firing people and confiscating a few cellphones?  This is the Forbidden City!  Cixi plotted here, as did Wei Zhongxian, and there are such things as standards. Couldn’t they boil someone alive and serve the broth in the restaurant, or exile someone to Xinjiang, or something?

I got this from Jeremiah Jenne, who I note left Beijing just before this whole thing blew up.

  1. There are also lots of pasts in various places. Which aspect of the palace are you trying to preserve? As I recall the Forbidden City (and it’s been a few years) they seem to push a pretty a-historical view of a timeless palace, saying nothing about the Republic and running the Ming and Qing together. []
  2. Even if you could get the money out of the site that would just mean asking for more from the state or some sort of foundation. []

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