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June 1, 2024

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Private museums gaining popularity among Chinese youth

CHEN Yi is among a growing number of young people frequenting private museums in their free hours. At an exhibition showcasing nearly 60 paintings from masters such as Titian, Raphael and Botticelli in Beijing, she felt surreal seeing the masterpieces that her professors talked about within reach.

“Titian and the Renaissance: Masterpieces of European Art in 500 Years” is an ongoing exhibition at the Meet You Museum in Beijing’s trendy 798 Art Zone.

“Yesterday, we had a class on Western art history, and our professor recommended that we see the exhibition here,” the 20-year-old university student said.

She noted that as a private museum, the Meet You Museum offers a quieter and more intimate environment for visitors to immerse themselves in the world of art.

“Compared to large, comprehensive state-owned museums, those set up by individuals or social groups tend to be small and specialized, and they tend to have more flexibility and originality in their curation,” said Qiu Tong, the museum’s founder.

The gallery has worked to create a convenient and enjoyable experience. Electronic audio guides are available to rent, and photo points have been marked out to cater to young people eager to post their experience on social media. And as stamp collecting has become a popular hobby among young people, visitors can also buy postcards and have them stamped by the museum to document their time there.

Passion cultivating passion

Qiu herself was an enthusiastic museumgoer when she was young, and later visited many museums in multiple countries. With each visit, a bold idea gradually took shape.

“I wanted to open a museum that would be a window through which foreigners could see China and through which Chinese people could learn about foreign culture, so that even those who have never traveled overseas have the opportunity to see the world,” she said.

The Meet You Museum in Beijing opened in October 2022. To date, Qiu’s Zhong Chuang Tourism and Culture Group Co has established five such museums, with the other four now located in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Nanjing and Chengdu. These five museums have hosted more than 80 exhibitions and welcomed over 3.5 million visitors, the majority of whom are Generation Z or parents and their children.

According to China’s National Cultural Heritage Administration, China was home to 6,565 museums by 2022, of which about a third, or 2,175, were not government owned.

The Meet You Museums put on exhibitions with various themes every season, while many other private museums, established by individuals who are passionate about particular areas, focus on a specific theme.

Zhang Jingxuan, 44, is one such individual, having founded the World Museum of Music and Culture in Dalian, northeast China’s Liaoning Province, in 2018.

The three-story museum building houses some 300,000 albums and more than 12,000 other items, including phonographs, music boxes, a replica of the famous Zeng Houyi Chime Bells and an antique French Boulle clock.

Zhang, who once worked as an engineer at a hotel, has been fascinated with music since he was a child.

“I loved listening to the radio and cassettes when I was small,” he said.

He decided to open a museum in 2007, but encountered challenges in collecting items with which to fill it.

The phonograph, which was invented by Thomas Edison in the 1870s, was an object of interest to Zhang. After collecting some 200 phonographs from around the world, he was determined to find one that had a close connection to the inventor.

“It took me quite a while to trace a descendant of Edison, and the man I found is himself the owner of a private museum that has hundreds of phonographs,” Zhang said.

After visiting the elderly man on three occasions, Zhang’s persistence paid off and he was granted a part of the collection.

Since it opened, Zhang’s museum has welcomed 1.9 million visitors, about half of whom have been teenagers or students interested in music. Famous foreign musicians like Israeli cellist Mischa Maisky have also been among that number.

Private museums have also been established in China by foreigners passionate about Chinese culture, like the Six Arts Museum in the historic city of Suzhou, east China’s Jiangsu Province, which has a collection of ancient Chinese folk objects.

Founder Mitch Dudek, a US national who arrived in China in the early 1980s, became interested in everyday objects used by ordinary people. This curiosity led him to start collecting Chinese folk crafts and antique furniture, and ultimately to open the museum in 2017.

With an exhibition space of 18,000 square meters, the Six Arts Museum showcases more than 40,000 ancient Chinese folk art items and collectibles, including brick carvings, plaques, sedan chairs and various other antique furniture pieces.

“I would like to preserve these beautiful artworks for Chinese young people, and I also hope that more young people can understand and love traditional Chinese culture and art,” Dudek said.

Making up for missed lessons

“Private museums supplement public ones and feature various themes, from the military to folk art and from papercutting to straw weaving,” said Huang Lan, a researcher at the Jilin Provincial Museum.

Huang noted that these museums provide a more relaxed experience, similar to the experience of walking into someone’s treasure-filled home.

“To attract visitors, they usually devise a unique design and introduce interactive exhibits,” she said.

Wang Chen, 34, said that she visited Beijing’s Meet You Museum to make up for a missed lesson. Her experience was aided by a display mapping the relationships between painters, which allowed her to understand the exhibition as someone who has not studied art history.

Her parents rarely brought her to museums when she was young, she said, because the majority of Chinese people at the time were focused on their food, clothing and accommodation needs. Today, Wang has her own child to bring with her. And as her 9-year-old son finds a passion for handicrafts, she has determined to learn more about art so that she is able to communicate with him better.

“Standing on the shoulders of our parents’ generation, we attach more importance to the spiritual world,” she said.

In 2022, China Youth Daily polled Chinese university students on their attitudes toward museums. Of the nearly 1,000 respondents, over 42 percent said they tended to visit museums once or twice a year.

“Visiting museums is becoming a lifestyle choice for young people these days,” Zhang Jingxuan said when asked about the role of private museums.

“We should endeavor to make museums a part of people’s daily lives.”


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