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China experiments with free admission to public museums
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Chinese culture authorities have vowed to open up 500 public museums and memorial halls free to visitors this year in its drive to give tax payers better access to high culture, but museums now face a tide of culture-hungry people which threatens to overwhelm their facilities.

Both museum managers and visitors are unsure when chaotic scenes in free-tour museums will come to an end, after free-admission experiments in some museums led to chaos.

The Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution became the first national museum in Beijing to pilot the free admission on March 1, when over 12,000 visitors flocked in, compared with a daily average of 1,200 visitors a week ago. The number leaped up to over 24,000 on the second day, and a little higher than that onthe third day.

The museum recruited 40 security guards from a security company to help keep order.

Litter was everywhere. Washrooms were crowded. In the exhibition room of weapons, parents willingly ignored safety warnings, allowing their children to use a missile boat as a slide, and climb onto an iron cannon to pose for photos.

A woman surnamed Liu said that she could not bear the crowd and bad behavior in such a civilized museum, where an exhibition illustrating the ups and downs of China on the road of national revival since 1840 was on show.

Yu Zhihong, deputy director of the museum said that the museum would keep the maximum daily number of free entry under 30,000, and renovate washrooms and exhibition facilities to better cope with the large stream of visitors.

A cross-sectoral government circular was issued on Jan. 23 asking all government-sponsored museums and memorial halls to introduce free admission by 2009.

Historical sites and museums built on relic sites, such as the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City, however, are not included in the free admission policy.

The Ministry of Finance announced in February that the central government will offer funding to cover the operating expenses of museums.

Vice Minister of Finance Zhang Shaochun said that the operating expenses of all national museums and memorial halls would be covered from the central budget, while institutions at the provincial level would be jointly supported by central and local budgets,

According to Zhang, the amount of compensation for institutions at the provincial level would vary by location. Those in eastern provinces, where local economies were stronger, would get 20 percent subsidies, with 60 percent funding for those in central provinces and 80 percent for the western provinces. He didn't say which provinces were in which category.

The circular has been warmly acclaimed by the culture-thirsty Chinese audience. Thousands of visitors flocked into local museums that pilot the free-admission experiment, enjoying free culture trips.

Many museum managers have foreseen a sharp surge of visitors with free entry. In Tianjin Museum in north China, 19 ticket windows were opened to give free tickets to visitors. The museum newly opened a leisure space, and added an automated cloakroom and more chairs.

Huang Chen, a publicity official with the National Museum of China said that with free admission, the management cost of a museum would rise sharply as museums have to develop their ability to manage flocks of visitors.

"The ticket income of the National Museum was about 10 million yuan a year. Although the central government has promised to cover the loss after free admission, the museum would still have to face financial difficulties in the increased costs of water, electricity, security, publicity and facility maintenance with the swelling number of visitors," he said.

However, the Ministry of Culture has urged that "the free entry of museums and memorial halls must be guaranteed and should in no way be hampered by fund shortages."

A netizen who called himself Changping said on his popular blog that the heavy inflow of visitors to museums would gradually disappear, after people realize that free admission to museums is not a temporary experiment. There is no need to rush.

"Museums are public resources, just like urban greenery and public squares. The central government's decision on free admission to public museums is not just to save people's culture expenditure, but to make things fairer," he said.

Wang Hongqing, director of the Hubei Provincial Museum in central China said that free admission will continue despite worries questioning the museum's ability to protect its rich collection of relics.

"After all, the museum's collection is for the public to appreciate, the more (visitors) the better. The free admission challenges our service ability," he said.

The museum plans to ask the public for solutions to the disorder and rude behavior.

(Xinhua News Agency March 5, 2008)

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