Selling Out History: China’s National Museum of Luxury

Paparazzi cue up on celebrities at the National Museum of China for the Bulgari - 125 Years of Italian Magnificence exhibition opening.

After a four-year, $380 million refurbishment, the National Museum of China finally opened its doors to the public as the largest exhibition space on the planet, beating out both the Louvre in Paris and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Even though now touted as one of the world’s premiere cultural institutions, it has failed to impress either international or domestic visitors with it’s shrill depiction of the history of the Chinese Communist Party in its centerpiece “The Road of Rejuvenation” exhibition. Key epochs such as the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution are left out of its glossy displays and poorly translated placards. Still, such a propagandistic history of modern China was expected in the first place. What really shocked many visitors was the blatant commercialization of the National Museum of China within its first two design exhibitions: “Louis Vuitton Voyages” and “Bulgari: 125 Years of Italian Magnificence.” Museum directors claim such exhibitions are revitalizing interest in the space, but it is more a sellout at the heart of the nation a stone’s throw from Mao Zedong’s tomb. Critics remain baffled as to how such a key cultural institution could blatantly promote such crass consumerism, especially surrounding the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party which was also linked to an exhibition of historical paintings adjacent to vintage Louis Vuitton trunks and sparkling Bulgari jewels. Such opulent items stand counter to the core ideologies of the founding fathers of the Chinese Communist Party celebrated a short distance away, as well as the core mission of the museum itself that is purportedly dedicated to promoting Chinese culture instead of foreign luxury brands. These photographs juxtapose the “The Road of Rejuvenation” and “Masterpieces of Modern Chinese Fine Arts” exhibitions advocating the socialist roots of the Chinese Communist Party with the champagne-fueled openings of the “Louis Vuitton Voyages” and “Bulgari: 125 Years of Italian Magnificence” exhibitions. Such paradoxes stand at the center of the Chinese Communist Party’s attempts to rectify its embrace of rampant free-market consumerism with its socialist heritage.

Chinese Communist Party officials pose in front of paintings at at a special exhibition celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party at the National Museum of China.

Attendees photograph themselves at the National Museum of China during the Louis Vuitton Voyages exhibition opening.A painting depicts Mao Zedong with workers at a special exhibition of paintings celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party at the National Museum of China.Attendees photograph themselves at the National Museum of China during the Louis Vuitton Voyages exhibition opening.

A massive showcase room for vintage Louis Vuitton lies at the heart of the National Museum of China for the Louis Vuitton Voyages exhibition opening.A diorama shows the conditions of early industrial labor in China at the National Musuem of China's "Road of Rejuvination" exhibition.Attendees try to figure out how to use a camera at the National Musuem of China's "Road of Rejuvination" exhibition.

Celebrities show off their jewelry at the National Museum of China for the Bulgari - 125 Years of Italian Magnificence exhibition opening.A well-heeled crowd surrounds the central bar serving free Moet at the National Museum of China for the Louis Vuitton Voyages exhibition opening.A diorama shows advanced military technology at the National Musuem of China's "Road of Rejuvination" exhibition.

Attendees inspect a painting of Japanese troops massacring civilians during World War II at the National Musuem of China's "Road of Rejuvination" exhibition.A red carpet snakes up to the National Museum of China for the Bulgari - 125 Years of Italian Magnificence exhibition opening.Attendees crowd against display cases to inspect the jewelry at the National Museum of China for the Bulgari - 125 Years of Italian Magnificence exhibition opening.

A mural depicts the surrender of the Kuomintang at the National Musuem of China's "Road of Rejuvination" exhibition.A well-heeled crowd packs the main entrance hall at the National Museum of China for the Louis Vuitton Voyages exhibition opening.Attendees can inspect a recreation of the rostrum used by Mao Zedong to declare the foundation of the People's Republic of China at the National Musuem of China's "Road of Rejuvination" exhibition.

Contemporary art installations are scattered about the National Museum of China for the Louis Vuitton Voyages exhibition opening.

    4 Responses Subscribe to comments


    1. hans stam

      you might as well call this china’s identity crisis, cause that is what it shows.

      Mar 19, 2012 @ 10:02 am


    2. Kexin Renlei

      Thank you for your reflections and images! I’m curious to see when I’m next in Beijing if the poor translations you mention are grammatically poor or just…poor. And if they DID have a decent editor give them the once-over, I always wonder…is the editor’s leaving them awful a subtle critique in and of itself?

      Mar 20, 2012 @ 9:55 am


    3. Matthew Niederhauser

      They were grammatically poor and poor in general. It’s amazing they don’t get a native English speaker to at least look over the placards. Quite frankly I feel that English translators in China usually get to their positions through deception in the first place and wold stand to lose their job if they admitted they should let a native speaker to look over their work. Instead they just send it to the presses.

      Mar 20, 2012 @ 10:49 am


    4. Museos gratuitos en China, toda una realidad | United Explanations

      […] Foto de portada:┬áMuseo Nacional de China […]

      Nov 15, 2013 @ 8:35 am

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