May 18 marks the International Museum Day. Since its creation in 1977, the International Museum Day has gained increasing attention.
Recently, the Nanjing Museum in Jiangsu Province made headlines for hosting a real estate developers' promotional activity. On April 26, the museum's curator was suspended for an alleged misuse of power. According to China's regulations on the protection of cultural relics, heads of museums do not have the authority to give the green light to commercial promotions at their institutions and should instead apply for approval for such events from higher-level authorities. The Nanjing Museum's curator failed to follow this requirement.
The case has again fueled controversy over the commercialization of museums.
The increasing number of commercial activities in museums has caused widespread concern in China. People worry that allowing this trend to continue will tarnish the image of museums as respected cultural venues and also put at risk the cultural relics and classic objects in museum collections. Others, however, argue that the commercialization of museums is happening around the world, and win-win outcomes are possible provided that the institutions abide by basic principles and maintain a balance between profit-making and cultural relics protection.
Zhu Changjun (news.163.com): When the Nanjing Museum was used as a venue for promoting a real estate project, it significantly altered the public's perception of such institutions. Opening museums to commercial activities poses potential risks to the collections and also betrays the nature of museums as public property. Should museums distance themselves entirely from commerce? The answer is: no.
Regulations issued by the Ministry of Culture encourage museums to engage in dissemination of scientific and cultural knowledge, development of cultural products, and provision of professional training on a for-profit basis. Arranging commercial activities in moderation to benefit museum operations is actually a common trend globally. Commercialization of museums is not necessarily a bad thing; the key is the degree to which museums should be open to business.
The curator of the Nanjing Museum has been suspended from her position not just because the museum was used for commercial purposes, but also because the necessary approval procedures were not followed. By implication, the regulations governing how museums can conduct commercial activities may be too vague. Whether the most recent cases arose due to personal decisions made by curators or through the interference of higher-level authorities, they reveal the lack of specific criteria covering the daily management and commercial operations of museums, which opens the door to interference by people in positions of power.
In recent years, admission to more and more museums has become free, as these institutions have gained recognition as providers of public cultural goods and services. Concurrently, though, lack of revenue, which adversely affects museums' short- and long-term operations, has become an increasingly prominent issue. In these circumstances, moderate commercialization can help to make up for funding shortages. Commercial operations, though, must be standardized, as preventing excessive commercialization from staining the reputation of museums and eroding their public nature is crucial.
Zhang Fengyi (Xinhua Daily Telegraph): Museums are usually seen as well-respected places far from the realm of frenzied crowd. The Cultural Relics Protection Law does not ban modest commercialization of museums, and for bodies short of funds, commercial activities help to make up for limited allocations from the public purse.
In recent years, however, the excessive commercialization of museums has become worrying. Although securing funding is vital to ensure normal operations, museums are supposed to adhere to set rules and bottom lines. Relevant regulations forbid museums from engaging in commercial activities that abuse relics, and other commercial activities must not affect the public interest.
Specifically, commercial activities must avoid any possible risk to cultural relics and should serve to facilitate the development of museums.
Furthermore, commercial operations are supposed to focus on tapping into the cultural significance of museum collections as well as creating new products and services related to culture and tourism. The British Museum, for example, licenses the production of souvenirs that replicate historical and cultural items in its extensive collection. The Louvre Museum in Paris often hosts short-term art exhibitions, academic seminars and other events for profit. Despite such commercial activities, these museums manage to maintain an elegant cultural atmosphere.
The Nanjing Museum, by comparison, has strayed too close to profit and too far from culture by allowing real estate developers to advertise their projects at the institution.
Xia Zhenbin (Guangzhou Daily): Museums around the world are engaged in commercial activities. Regulations and relevant policies in China encourage the financing of protection and research of cultural relics through various channels and paid services. Museums are supposed to make profits by respecting basic principles and bottom lines.
What principles can rein in museums' commercial activities? Actually, a consensus already exists. Regarding safety, for example, commercial activities must pay full attention to the protection of cultural relics. Unfortunately, however, safety consciousness is often lacking in the minds of those who manage such events. On many occasions, huge electric facilities are placed casually and bare electric wires exposed, which puts valuable objects in hazardous conditions. Commercial activities must accord with and serve the heritage protection and educational functions that comprise museums' raison d'être. These institutions are supposed to select business activities to host in a discerning way, so as not to associate themselves too closely with commercial organizations.
It's acceptable for museums to generate income to improve their operations, but rules exist that dictate what museums can and cannot do. The conduct of the Nanjing Museum's curator could substantiate a claim that by using the museum to make money, she was acting as though she owned the museum, whereas in fact she just led the institution.
State-owned museums, theoretically, need approval from administrative watchdogs in order to host commercial activities. In reality, however, this procedure is often neglected. And even if applications are submitted to supervisory bodies, the criteria used for assessment and who has the final say of approval remain ambiguous.
As museums belong to the public, the aim of commercial operations should not be to feather the nest but to re-invest proceeds in improving and developing the institutions. Although museums' business activities ought to be transparent to the general public, in many cases, commercial revenues are not publicly disclosed, and this creates circumstances that have the potential to facilitate corruption. In any case, commercialization is a general trend, and standardizing rather than trying to curb it would be prudent so that museums can gain funding to improve their operations, which is in the public interest.
Han Li (Hebei Daily): Museums are dignified and solemn places in the hearts of many people. Full of respect, visitors try to learn more about history and ancient cultures through the relics on display. The excessive commercialization of museums in recent years goes against the main objective of these institutions. Some former imperial residences in Beijing's Palace Museum have been used as private clubs, while in Nanjing, the city's main museum has featured commercial real estate promotion in the name of culture. Some museums, it seems, have turned a blind eye to the bottom line of their cultural relics' protection.
Staging activities in museums irrelevant to the protection and research of cultural relics undoubtedly uses the institutions as commercial tools. As public repositories, museums accommodate a nation's memory of history and civilization and should never be treated as "cash cows."
Of course, we don't insist that museums refrain absolutely from commercial activities. Modest commercialization is conducive to the sound operation of museums. The key is to decide to what extent they may engage in business activities. Two important principles require consideration. First, commercial activities are allowed to the extent that they bolster the improvement and development of museums without threatening the safety of cultural relics. Second, museums should always pay attention to preserving their nature as providers of public cultural goods and services and should never involve themselves in degrading commercial activities.
If relics are harmed and cultural traditions are obscured and forgotten in waves of commercialization, museums will gradually become empty and lose the primary justification for their existence. The value of historical and cultural relics, after all, lies not in using them to generate financial gain.
It is important, therefore, that relevant departments balance commercial activities and cultural relics' protection in order to most effectively facilitate the development of museums.
Copyedited by Chris Surtees
Comments to email@example.com