Shan Jixiang: Palace Museum Gatekeeper

Shan believes that to optimize the Palace Museum, which is full of China’s national treasures, for tourists from around the world, work needs to be done above and beyond standard museum maintenance.
by Duan Wei and Wang Yuncong
October 10, 2016: On the 91st anniversary of the founding of the Palace Museum, the biggest trove of ancient Chinese treasures in the world, Shan outlines the celebratory activities to be held to journalists. by Sheng Jiapeng/China News Service

On September 8, 2012, the Palace Museum launched the Palace Museum Forum, a series of non-profit - public lectures. The first lecture, themed “From the Forbidden City to the Palace Museum,” was presented by curator Shan Jixiang, who had been heading the museum for only eight months. Across the four years since then, nearly 70 experts have appeared at the forum to give lectures related to the Palace Museum on topics like ancient Chinese architecture, cultural relics studies and appreciation, and technological protection of cultural heritage. Nearly 10,000 attendees have benefited from the forum. On February 12, 2017, the forum celebrated its 100th lecture. The curator stepped onto the podium once again, with a lecture titled “Expressions of the Palace Museum.”

The forum is just one of many programs Shan introduced after taking over management of the time-honored Palace Museum. Shan believes that to optimize the Palace Museum, which is full of China’s national treasures, for tourists from around the world, work needs to be done above and beyond standard museum maintenance.

A panoramic view of the Palace Museum. Established in 1925, the Palace Museum was installed in the imperial palace of two consecutive dynasties—the Ming and the Qing. It is one of the most prestigious museums in China and the world. by Wan Quan

“Palace Museum with Dignity”

Born in Beijing in 1954, Shan studied protection and planning for historic cities and historic neighborhoods in college. In the early 1990s, he began to practice city planning and cultural heritage protection, and was deemed a scholar-official by the Chinese media. In early 2012, he was appointed curator of the world-renowned Palace Museum, where 24 Chinese emperors from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties once lived.

As soon as Shan took office, he launched comprehensive “field research” of his museum. Covering a total area of 111 hectares, the Palace Museum is so big that Chinese people always speak of its vastness using hyperbole. “If a person slept in a different room of the Palace Museum every night, he still wouldn’t get to all of them in his lifetime,” goes one saying. But Shan committed to walking every inch of the museum to “get familiar with every flower and brick.” Five months later, he had stepped foot in every one of the 9,000-plus rooms in the Palace Museum, and worn out 20 pairs of cloth shoes. Since construction of the Forbidden City was completed in 1420, perhaps only two people have managed to document completion of this task: Shan and his secretary. Alongside this field investigation, Shan also visited both working and retired scholars and cultural relics experts of the museum, previous curators of the museum and outside specialists and experts in related fields. “During my visits and research, I began to profoundly understand the subtlety, sensitivity, and complexity of our work in the Palace Museum as well as the challenges we face and the dedication of so many people,” said Shan.

Some of the cultural and creative products at the Palace Museum. Statistics show that by the end of 2016, the museum had launched more than 9,100 kinds of these distinctive products, and the sales volume exceeded one billion yuan. by Duan Wei

The world’s five most famous museums—the Palace Museum, the Louvre, the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the State Hermitage Museum— are in China, France, Britain, the United States, and Russia, respectively. “You have to have a good museum to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council,” Shan joked.

In the hope of helping the Palace Museum better showcase China’s history of civilization and become more international, Shan carried out a series of reforms after taking office. Comprehensive renovation of the site’s ancient structures has been carried out without needing to close the museum, and most structures have maintained a healthy state. In 2013, the Palace Museum launched a pilot plan to close every Monday afternoon. In 2014, the museum began to close to the public every Monday to give the museum and its relics time for rest. In 2013, smoking and lighters were banned from the museum to ensure the preservation of the ancient wooden structures. The same year, motor vehicles were banned from entering the areas opened to the public in the Forbidden City. In April 2013, during his visit to the Palace Museum, French President François Hollande got out of his car at the Meridian Gate, one of the four gates of the imperial palace, and walked through the museum on foot. Since then, no exception has been made even for the most distinguished state guests. At the end of 2015, the Digital Gallery at the Gate of Correct Deportment began to receive visitors. In 2016, 76 percent of the museum’s total area was open to the public, up from only 30 percent a few years earlier.

Craftsmen and artisans from the Palace Museum create and represent its craftsmanship. As the world’s largest palace complex, housing 1.8 million cultural relics, the museum requires a huge number of craftsmen. Courtesy of China Pictorial Archives

Shan insisted that the starting point for all his work was an aim to “give the Palace Museum more dignity.” He looks at “dignity” with a dual eye: He pledged to protect the dignity of 1.8 million cultural relics housed in the museum as well as that of visitors. Every item stored in the museum should be preserved for posterity in a safe and healthy state, and more than 10 million people visit the museum each year. “Each visitor should be guaranteed a good environment and an impressive cultural experience,” added Shan. “They are entitled to visit this magnificent museum with dignity.”

Livening Up the Ancient Palace

Shan believes that to reinvigorate the time-honored palace and become more popular with young people, the museum should work to become more accessible to them. Only a living and breathing Palace Museum will be optimally passed on to the later generations.

To this end, Shan took “bold” measures in 2013 by recruiting a team of millennial to redesign the museum’s official website and online store for cultural and creative products and maintain its social media accounts on WeChat and Weibo. The young team has received rave reviews for its impressive work over the last few years. Successful products include ear buds resembling traditional court beads, the Palace Museum app and a series of virtual reality programs. Visitors and locals alike agree that the Palace Museum is becoming livelier.

Shan introduced a new archeological fnding in the Palace Museum to journalists in May 2016. Ruins of large palace buildings, dating back to the early Ming Dynasty, have been uncovered. By Sheng Jiapeng/China News Service

This liveliness is exhibited in many other ways too. In recent years, the Palace Museum has attached increasing importance to the establishment of its own team devoted to cultural relic protection and inheritance, supply bases for traditional construction materials, a network of senior craftsmen and artisans and a mechanism for cultivating cultural inheritors. Most importantly, perhaps, the museum is seeking out and applying cutting-edge technologies. In 2016, we completed the construction of the museum’s ‘hospital’ for cultural relics,” explained Shan. “With measures like scanning and nondestructive testing with new technologies, we’re getting a clearer view of our ancient cultural relics and artifacts, their current situations, materials and dam age. And all these technologies improve our abilities to renovate and repair. They also help maintain and pass on our traditional techniques and crafts.”

In an effort to reach a broader range of people, Masters in the Forbidden City, a three-episode documentary about the old imperial palace and its secrets that have been uncovered with restoration technology, hit Chinese TV screens in early 2016. After originally airing on China Central Television, the production became a big hit on the internet, where it has been down loaded nearly 100 million times. Although the overall numbers were impressive, Shan was most encouraged by the fact that 70 percent of viewers were aged from 18 to 22. “Our top wish is that they feel the cultural spirit we try to convey in the restoration process,” he added.

January 17, 2017: Shan (center) and eminent monk Master Yanzang check on the scriptures of Tripitaka. Prints of the complete version of an 18th century edition of the Tripitaka, a collection of Buddhist scriptures, have been collated by the Palace Museum. The compilation of the Qing Dynasty imperial edition of the Tripitaka started in 1733 and fnished in 1738. by Jin Liangkuai/Xinhua

“Do Our Job Well”

Rather than the “boss” of the Palace Museum, Shan considers himself more of a gatekeeper. “It is the gatekeeper’s duty to protect the treasures housed within from fires and thieves,” he said. “It is also his duty to improve the access mechanism of the platform. A good gatekeeper needs a strong sense of responsibility and devotion to serving the public. Protecting the Palace Museum doesn’t fall on the shoulders of one or two generations. Our generation needs to do our job with our offspring in mind.”

In 2020, the Forbidden City, where the Palace Museum is housed, will celebrate its 600th birthday. In 2025, the Palace Museum will celebrate its 100th anniversary. As those milestones approach, Shan plans on releasing a series of products to celebrate the history and the endeavors to protect and preserve the Forbidden City. He considers it his duty to showcase the most magnificent ancient palace complex to the world.

“You boast about how spacious your museum is, but you only open 30 percent of it to the public. You rave about your museum’s tremendous collection, but keep 99 percent of it away from your patrons. You welcome a massive stream of daily visitors, but most of them just walk down the central axis from the front entrance to the back gate,” Shan illustrated. “In my opinion, a museum like that is not a real museum.” He added that in the future, the Palace Museum would take more innovative measures to reach out to the public and take its deserving place as one of the world’s top museums.