Germans Score First Show in ‘World’s Biggest Museum’ in Beijing

National Museum of China
The National Museum of China on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. Source: von Gerkan, Marg und Partner Architekten via Bloomberg

As China prepares to open what it bills as the biggest museum in the world, the Germans are the first to get a slice of the action in Beijing.

The National Museum of China reopens on Tiananmen Square, near the Forbidden City, in April. A German architecture firm, Gerkan, Marg und Partner, is extending and adapting two existing museums on the site. Berlin, Dresden and Munich, having seen off competition from Paris and London, are lending their treasures for the first exhibition, “The Art of the Enlightenment.”

Those involved are awed by the scale of it.

“We don’t associate these dimensions with museums in Europe,” Michael Eissenhauer, the director general of Berlin’s public museums, said in an interview. “The volume reminds you of 19th-century rail stations. It’s like a market square with a roof, for huge crowds of people.”

The two museums formerly on the plot -- the Chinese History Museum and the Chinese Revolutionary Museum -- were built in 1959 to feature among the Ten Great Buildings erected to mark the 10th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic.

The new foyer is 300 meters long and 30 meters high, and the museum can accommodate 19,000 visitors. Construction began in 2007 and took three years and a budget of 250 million euros ($343 million). At times, there were 8,000 builders on the site, according to Stephan Schuetz, the partner overseeing the project for Gerkan, Marg und Partner.

Schuetz said both the Louvre and the State Hermitage Museum have more exhibition space, though the building will be the biggest museum under one roof, including its archives.

Chinese Speed

“It’s amazing that it all went so quickly and so smoothly,” said Schuetz, whose company beat bids from Foster and Partners and Herzog & de Meuron. “It wouldn’t be possible to build a museum in Germany at that speed. China can mobilize unbelievable forces when it’s for something important.”

Berlin, Dresden and Munich are loaning about 600 works of art, including masterpieces by Caspar David Friedrich, Francisco de Goya, Jean Antoine Watteau and Thomas Gainsborough, as well as furniture and scientific instruments. Germany is providing funds of 7 million euros. The opening is scheduled for April 1.

Martin Roth, the director of Dresden’s art collections, has traveled to China over the past 20 years and staged exhibitions in Shanghai and Beijing.

“If anyone had told me 15 years ago that I would be doing an exhibition on Tiananmen Square about the Enlightenment in 2011, I would never have believed it,” Roth said. “China has opened up enormously.”

Celebrating Confucius

A statue of Confucius, the Chinese philosopher born in 551 B.C., now stands in front of the museum, Roth said. After the Communist Party took power, celebrating Confucius was banned. It is only since the 1990s that a ceremony honoring his memory has been reinstated.

The Age of the Enlightenment is a European concept that has no parallel in China, Eissenhauer said. Its themes of individual and artistic freedom could even be seen as provocative in China, where the writer, democracy campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Liu Xiaobo is imprisoned. Yet, Eissenhauer said, the Chinese authorities set no terms for the exhibition content.

“No one ever even suspected or dreamed that anyone would say we don’t want this artwork, or we have to change this text,” Eissenhauer said. “Nor did they need to -- nothing like that happened. In this respect, it was just like doing an exhibition in the U.S. -- absolutely problem-free.”

As well as 18th- and 19th-century works, the show will include art by Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys and Georg Baselitz.

Combining Chinese and European traditions has been part of Schuetz’s challenge as architect. The building alludes to the Forbidden City, with its wooden roof, square eaves and rows of columns. Gerkan, Marg und Partner’s first proposal was rejected as too heavy a contrast with the architecture of the square.

“There has been criticism that western architects have used China as a laboratory for their visions,” Schuetz said. “By definition, this museum has to make the national identity visible.”

(Catherine Hickley is a writer for Bloomberg Muse, the arts and leisure section of News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE