American Gift Helps China Display Past
The Sackler Museum is the nation's first modern art-archaeology facility
BEIJING — WHEN Arthur Sackler first visited China in 1979, he confronted official demands to return his vast collection of Chinese art and artifacts.
"Arthur said they had so many magnificent things in China, they really didn't need his collection back. In addition, he thought that the West should learn about the Chinese aesthetic," recalls Jill Sackler, widow of the well-known Sinophile and art collector. "He said what China really needed was a state-of-the-art working museum."
Almost a year after his death last May, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology will open this spring on the campus of Beijing University. The teaching facility will house the university's extensive archaeological holdings and become China's most modern and technically advanced museum, say Chinese and Western planners.
The opening comes amid a major transition in Chinese archaeology. But completion of the Beijing facility, which joins the family of Sackler museums in Cambridge, Mass., New York, Washington, and London, at this time is only coincidental, Sackler officials say.
The gallery has withstood delays, bureaucratic obstacles, Sackler's death, and even the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989 to open eight years after the first agreement was initialed, planners say.
Mrs. Sackler, who visits China often, remembers the stormy spring of 1989 and the subsequent massacre, which prompted some advisers to urge shelving the museum project.
"I was here in 1989 when the students were in the square. I thought democracy was coming slowly but surely in the nicest possible way. Then I left China, and when I got back to the United States, there were those shots on television. It was extraordinary, a terrible event," she says.
"There was some thought that we should withdraw for a while.... But the decision was made that this was a project originated by my husband and he wanted to complete it. We were doing something for the students and the Chinese people," she continues. For Chinese archaeologists, the museum will be a laboratory of museum design and know-how and a chance to bring needed Western technology to conservation efforts here.
The Arthur M. Sackler Foundation is funding two-thirds of the museum cost, estimated at more than $5 million, with the university providing the remainder. In a donation that has piqued some family rivalry, Sackler's first wife, Else, has given $200,000 for display cases and lighting.
Beijing University, China's most prestigious institution of higher learning, which is commonly referred to as Beida, has amassed 10,000 pieces in its archaeological collection in the last 60 years. But until 10 years ago, archaeology study was a poor cousin of the history department, and until the Sackler project, Beida's collection was homeless.
Cao Yin, the energetic Sackler assistant director and curator who has studied museum management in the United States and plans to return for more study at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., says China has many time-proven conservation techniques.
But the country's isolation has left Chinese research out of sync with the growing mix of archaeology and science elsewhere. "We're learning by building this museum from the ground up. This museum is like a guinea pig for us," says Ms. Cao, who is part of a 15-member staff. "One of our future focuses is to bring in more scientific methods for conserving objects and to catch up with the mainstream."
To avoid clashing with the traditional mood of Beida's wooded campus, the Sackler museum was designed in Ming dynasty style (14th to 17th century) and is built around a courtyard, a familiar architectural expression in China.
But if the facility looks traditional on the outside, inside it boasts the latest in lighting design, climate control, and display. The Sackler is China's first museum to use computerization. Americans involved in the project worry that erratic electrical supplies and tight university maintenance funds will pose future problems for the high-tech museum.
Some planners also fret over the design conflict of mixing display cases, commonly used in art museums, with open displays in which archaeological artifacts can achieve a cultural context.
But Lo-Yi Chan, the New York-based architect who designed the museum, says the Sackler facility has low-tech fallbacks for the sophisticated systems. "They really can't afford to run a state-of-the-art museum," the architect says. "So, for example, there is a very high-technology German lighting system. But we've also put in flourescent lights. The same was done for climate control."
The museum's gala opening, first planned for last fall, is now scheduled for May, when an international array of archaeologists will gather in Beijing for a major conference.
The Sackler also will unveil its first exhibit featuring 800 artifacts ranging from the Paleolithic period beginning a million years ago to the Ming dynasty to the Republican period from the early 20th century.
Sackler officials say they don't anticipate donating pieces from the foundation's collection to the museum. Chinese expectations of restored treasures were raised when Sackler brought back a Ming-dynasty throne in the 1980s and presented it to the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City.
But Sackler officials do expect exchanges between Beijing and its sister museums, possibly even including Sackler's most valuable Chinese work, a Zhou silk manuscript from the 5th century BC.
"When I walk into the Louvre and see Whistler's mother ["Arrangement in Gray and Black"] there, it really ticks me off," says Curtis Cutter, a Sackler Foundation official. "We all have these nationalistic feelings. The Chinese aren't alone."