Postcard from China, 5

18th July 2013

We spent Wednesday in Xi’an, partly because we wanted a quieter day with less travelling than we have enjoyed over the past week. I’m also struggling with a head cold which seems a bit unfair, but nonetheless our time continues of course to be fascinating. We decided that our main outing of the day would be the Shaanxi History Museum, said to be one of the finest of China’s museums, and we had been warned to get there early as only a limited number of tickets are made available each day. So we aimed to be there by 8.30am, but first we elected to treat ourselves to a breakfast in Starbucks.

KFC is easily the biggest western food chain in China, and McDonald’s is fairly ubiquitous too. But there are also a number of Starbucks in the major cities as Haagen-Dazs outlets are popping up also. Which probably makes this the moment to tell my Haagen-Dazs story. I went into the Xi’an outlet looking for a two-scoop tub to eat as I walked back to the hotel. About six staff were involved in serving me, but I’m not sure that many of them had been doing the job for very long. I ended up with two separate tubs, each with a single scoop, packed in a bag with a sachet of dry ice which I was told would keep the ice cream frozen for 30 minutes. Indeed I was instructed not to eat the ice cream for said 30 minutes, and also to be careful of the dry ice, which fizzed and smoked when I turned it out into the basin back at the hotel. For all of which I was charged the equivalent of £7.

Prices are weird here. For the most part almost everything is remarkably cheap when compared with western prices. Four of us can eat well for £10 or so. An hour cab ride from Beijing airport to our hotel cost £10. Large bottles of local beer can be had from a pavement stall for 40 or 50 pence. But Starbucks costs pretty much exactly the same as in Soho, with a modest breakfast setting us back more than £20. And in Tiayuan airport, a coffee, an ice cream and a smoothie cost again more than £20, significantly more than I would have been prepared to pay in London.

One of the great things about the Shaanxi History Museum is that it’s free to the first 2,000 visitors each day. But that means that when we arrive before 8.30am (the advertised opening time) the double queue stretches for more than a block and a half. And once again the vast majority are Chinese, with fewer than a dozen westerners. I can’t ever remember such enthusiasm among the great British public for the permanent collections of Tate or the BM. When we finally get to the ticket office, to be given our free pass not only do we have to show our passports but we also have to fill in a form with our gender, the city in which we live and our passport number. They certainly like their bureaucracy here.

The collections of the museum are pretty wonderful but the experience of viewing them really is not. There is a glorious sequence of objects from Neolithic times to the Tang Dynasty, when Xi’an last enjoyed a central role in China. Amazing grave goods, exquisite bowls, gorgeous Tang figures are finely presented in modern display cases, along with informative texts in Chinese and (often idiosyncratic) English translations. But as Sartre might have said, hell here is other museum visitors.

The crowding is like Van Gogh at the RA or Leonardo at the National Gallery. But that’s not the worst of it. Rather it is the sense that the only thing most people do when faced with an object is snap a picture on their mobile and move on. Within two seconds or so. They don’t read the label, they certainly don’t look at the object apart from as mediated by a screen, and they don’t give it even a moment to reveal itself.

I know it’s not for me to dictate about how museum objects should be experienced, but the sense that everyone all the time simply takes an image and moves to the next is somehow deeply dispiriting. I don’t want to claim any kind of superiority for my ways of seeing, but to stand in front of a delicate golden bowl from a millennium ago and have a camera to the left, a camera to the right, and a camera pushed in front me at waist height, again and again, is not my idea of fun.

Of course this raises all sorts of interesting questions. Are the images ever looked at again? What do they mean for the people who take them? How did people experience museums before everyone had an image-making device? But I really wish it was possible here to grab a moment of two of the contemplative experience you can create for yourself in, say, the China galleries at the British Museum.

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