The coronavirus outbreak in several cities of China has led to some drastic measures including the construction of a huge new medical facility in the city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the disease. In numerous cities, the public has been encouraged to stay indoors and travel restrictions have been put in place by both the Chinese authorities as well as overseas governments. All of this has had an impact on the museum sector. However, several museums and galleries in China have harnessed modern technology to keep their doors open to the public – in a virtual sense, at least.
Online Tours Replacing Real Ones
A good example of what is going on in China is the work carried out at Beijing’s National Museum. Its latest exhibition, called ‘The Journey Back Home: An Exhibition of Chinese Artifacts Repatriated from Italy’ has been curated carefully and put online as an entire visitor experience in its own right. The virtual tour is available now so that visitors can view the complete exhibition, even allowing them to zoom into the exhibits to obtain extremely detailed views. All of the show’s labels have been digitised, too. What’s more, they are available in multiple languages. However, the National Museum is not an exceptional case because plenty of other institutions have also created their own versions of virtual tours, allowing would-be attendees to progress through their exhibition spaces and galleries freely.
Also in Beijing, the Forbidden City – a huge museum complex in the heart of the metropolis – was gearing up for a celebration of its 600th anniversary this year. The Palace Museum, which is one of China’s major tourist attractions for both foreign visitors and a domestic audience, had made extensive plans for the coming year and produced an extraordinary line-up of exhibitions in the coming months. In late January, however, the museum’s leadership team was forced to announce that it would be closing its doors due to the coronavirus outbreak. Even more disappointingly, it said that this would remain the case for the foreseeable future.
Despite this obvious setback, the Palace Museum said that it had taken steps to revive one of its scheduled anniversary exhibitions. For example, one show was due to be centred on the Spring Festival, designed to show how this was celebrated in the Forbidden City through the ages with a particular focus on ancient China. Due to the closure, the museum has made this available online for its domestic visitors who can no longer attend in person. The museum already provides a virtual tour which is available to anyone. It is called the Panoramic Palace Museum and it offers visitors the chance to roam freely around the palace’s complex, something that can mean beating the crowds when the real thing is open, of course.
Elsewhere, museums and galleries have been taking understandable precautions to protect the public. The organisers of the Gallery Weekend Beijing said that this year’s event – due to start on 13th Marc – may be cancelled unless the coronavirus outbreak is contained by then, citing concerns over their own staff and construction workers. The UCCA Centre for Contemporary Art, which operates from both Qinhuangdao and Beijing, also said it would temporarily close despite having made efforts to stay open by sterilising gallery spaces every day in recent weeks.
A similar decision to protect the public, as well as museum sector workers, was taken by the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. However, it still remains open online. The memorial hall, which is focussed on remembering the 300,000 or so Chinese people who were slaughtered by Japanese forces during the Second World War, allows online visitors to access the museum as if they were really there. Users can go in through the entrance to the museum and navigate their way around simply by clicking which way they want to go. The memorial hall has put multi-lingual information on its walls which can be clicked on to read. Alternatively, virtual visitors can tap on a video icon at numerous exhibits which gives them the chance to look more closely at the museum’s different displays.
The Government’s Response
On 28th January, China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage said that, due to the coronavirus outbreak, it would need to formulate plans for a new public platform for online exhibitions. It said that it would like museums and galleries throughout the country to submit 360-degree images of their exhibits so it could put them online. Nevertheless, some of the country’s largest museums already have such online versions of their tours, such as the Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum in Xi’an, for example, famous for its terracotta warriors. Nevertheless, the Chinese state authorities responsible for culture said more needed to be done to put exhibitions online during the crisis. According to their letter to museums in the country, institutions have a uniquely positive role in spreading knowledge, interpreting culture and helping to lift spirits.
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About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.