Private museums spring up across China

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Private museums, displaying everything from antique furniture to vouchers to stones, have sprung up across China in recent years.

Private museums have existed in Europe and the US for decades, with some, such as the Guggenheim in New York, drawing visitors from around the world. In China, the concept is in its infancy by comparison, but beginning to flourish. Most private museums in China are no larger than a couple of rooms displaying the owner's collection, sometimes without any entrance charge.

Xie Zhikuan is the owner of such a museum in Liuzhou, one of China's oldest industrial bases, in South China's Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.

Xie began to collect radios 20 years ago, before expanding to television sets, record players and home appliances, until they eventually took over his three-story house. Objects that can usually only be seen in old movies are now packed into every room.

Space is so limited that Xie has stacked parts of the collection in corners, covered by a thick layer of dust. At first glance his home looks like an abandoned warehouse.

Xie's home-appliance museum reflects the problem most private museum owners in China face: While they love collecting and showing their collections, they lack the money and space to create a sustainable business.

Luo Xiaojun, executive editor-in-chief of 21 Century Business Insights, who is compiling a white paper on private museums in China, says many are not yet "proper" museums.

"A real private museum should have stable sources of funding, but currently most Chinese ones are funded from the owners' pocket money, so they are not sustainable," he says.

Under Chinese law, private museums are categorized as "private non-enterprises", which technically means they can enjoy tax breaks, subsidies and other favorable government policies. But this is not yet happening in many parts of China, particularly in rural areas where the local economy is not developed enough to support these initiatives.

Peng Feng, chair of the Department of Art Theory, History and Criticism at the School of Arts with Peking University, says the development of private museums in China lags far behind that of Europe and the US.

"The Guggenheim Museum, for instance, has already extended its influence beyond the border and become the benchmark for contemporary private museums," he says. "They have established a reputation in this field and later museums have followed their display pattern and management style."

A modern private museum usually has a board of directors that deals with daily operations and income from donations and entrance fees.

In metropolitan areas of China such as Beijing and Shanghai, private museums are relatively mature, as the owners are mostly wealthy and can afford the daily expense of running them. But few have adopted a modern management style.

The Red Sandalwood Museum in Beijing, for example, is one of the biggest private museums in China, owned by real estate tycoon Chan Laiwa. The museum accommodates more than 2,300 pieces of red sandalwood furniture, and first opened to the public in 1999.

China's first private museum was the Guanfu Museum, opened in 1997 in Beijing by writer Ma Weidu. It is divided into sections, showing furniture, oil paintings, porcelain and other items.

The Guanfu Museum operates with public donations, similar to many of its counterparts in the West. It is also one of the few private museums in China that have introduced a board system.

Most private museum owners in China collect objects related to Chinese contemporary or classical art, but there is a vast range of other collections, including vouchers and even stones.

Li Santai is a retired employee of the Supply and Marketing Cooperative near Liuzhou. Between the 1950s and the 1980s, the Chinese government rationed items such as candy, soap and meat using a token system.

Li began collecting the tokens as a purchaser in the cooperative during the 1970s. Thirty years on, he has spent around 3 million yuan ($480,000) buying tokens from across China.

His 150-square-meter apartment is now packed with stacks of tokens, which tell a tale of China's recent history.

Many of China's private museums are not driven by a mission to preserve the country's history, but by profit, as the owners believe the objects will appreciate in value, according to Luo Xiaojun, while in other cases they are simply a means for the owner to show off their wealth.

"That's why many private museums are affiliated properties of real estate companies, which can also build a good image of their company," he says.

Fortunately, this situation is changing, and the private museum sector is maturing and developing its management style, he says.

"Private museums should be unique enough to differentiate themselves from the bigger and stronger public museums," Peking University's Peng says.

"A good private museum should be a place to preserve the typical objects of a certain period, which are so common that they are often neglected by public museums, or else they will be gone forever."


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