When it reopened last month after extensive renovations to the tune of £235m, the National Museum of China edged out New York’s Metropolitan to become the largest museum in the world. The Tiananmen Square institution offered a grandiose view of China’s history, but gave short shrift to sensitive topics — not surprisingly, it is silent on certain events that took place nearby.
But since 1 April, critics have found it more difficult to paint the institution as a mere propaganda outlet. The museum’s first temporary exhibition, “The Art of the Enlightenment”, is a yearlong collaboration with top-tier German institutions in Berlin, Dresden and Munich. It includes thematic sections on such overtly political topics as “Emancipation and the Public Sphere” and “The Revolution of Art”. Surely, in the wake of an unnerving political season that saw tumult in the Maghreb and a “jasmine revolution”, someone in the government must object?
Maybe, but no one told Michael Eissenhauer, director of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, a group of 17 institutions overseen by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. “This is my experience looking back: there was no taboo on the matters of art, history or the relations of history to the present,” he tells Monocle.
Financed primarily by the German Foreign Office, the exhibition is the culmination of a programme of Sino-German cultural events agreed upon in 2005, and was reaffirmed in a July 2010 communiqué jointly signed by Wen Jiabao and Angela Merkel. Alongside masterpieces by the likes of Piranesi and Goya, it includes works by the poets and philosophers most closely associated with the Enlightenment. Chinese students of French and German already study such writings, says Eissenhauer, so the texts “bring visitors closer to the paintings and the visual transformations of the ideas into art”.
“Enlightenment in Dialogue”, a series of panels co-organized by the National Museum of China and the German educational foundation Stiftung Mercator, will run parallel to the museum exhibition, drawing links between the European historical experience and China in the present day. Bernhard Lorentz, director of Stiftung Mercator, has said the dialogues are intended “to help get China and Europe, and the different groups in society, talking to one another—in the interests of better mutual understanding”.
We often associate the Enlightenment with firebrand revolutionaries, forgetting that monarchs sometimes embraced the movement for pragmatic reasons. “At its start, Enlightenment was protected by the sovereigns,” Eissenhauer explains. “They saw that several of its aspects, such as the curiosity and the increasing importance of science, help society to go forward and solve the problems of the present.” In a society beset with technical challenges these 200-year-old ideas may be more relevant than ever.