2008-07-01 03:29:33 GMT 2008-07-01 11:29:33 (Beijing Time) China Daily
Young visitors are attracted by an ancient vessel on display at Hubei Provincial Museum. China's museums now strive to play a bigger role in public education.(Photo Source: China Daily)
At an art class at the National Art Museum of China, children create their own collages from used magazines, such as the picture shown above.(Photo Source: China Daily)
BEIJING, July 1 -- Yu Anjie has been a regular museum visitor for years. But the 12-year-old Beijing primary school student insists her motivation has nothing to do with popular Hollywood blockbusters, such as The Da Vinci Code and Night at the Museum.
For her, the appeal comes from the ever-changing exhibits and educational programs offered by Dongcheng Art Center for Children.
Like most of her classmates, Yu is heavily involved in extracurricular activities, and her parents push her to spend her spare time studying dance, music, English and math with private tutors.
"But I take a greater sense of relaxation, fun and self-confidence from art lessons than any other extracurricular classes," she says.
Yu was among the 30 school pupils aged between 8 and 12 attending a recent art class at the National Art Museum of China. The lessons revolved around an exhibition of German landscape paintings and the Synthetic Times International New Media Art Exhibition.
In the first session, art educator Xu Weiwei from Dongcheng Art Center for Children and Zhao Xuechun from China Art Center for Children from Haidian district asked the kids to create their own stories after explaining to them world-renowned contemporary artist Xu Bing's interactive Book From the Ground.
Xu's art deals with an interactive communication system using icons and signs he has spotted in public spaces or pictographic images he invented himself. When a visitor keys in a sentence on a computer connected to a large LED screen, the machine will generate a dialogue with the visitor in an alien language.
Divided into several groups, the pupils sat in a circle in the exhibition hall, trying to figure out how to express their own ideas in the languages from Book From the Ground. They then tried again to decipher a Tang Dynasty poem written in the same strange language that turned out to be a poem written by the homesick Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai.
Later, the pupils interpreted an unconventional painting by German artist Corinne Wasmuth in which enormous digitally rendered formats and excessively detailed figurative images are intertwined.
"It is impossible for the youngsters to understand the deeper meaning of the painting. But by playing this game, we hope to cultivate their ability to link their life experiences with what they see in the exhibits," explains Ge Yi, a volunteer teacher from Central Academy of Fine Arts who hosted a lively discussion with the pupils.
But the exhibition hall really began to buzz when the kids created their own collages from used fashion magazines, imitating the German artist's style.
The in-gallery art lessons coincided with a two-day international conference on art education in museums.
The Art Space for Education's Sake event attracted more than 100 museum administrators, art educators, art scholars and gallery owners from China and the US.
They exchanged ideas on a broad range of topics, such as comparative studies of art museums in the two countries, art education policy and cultural identity.
Art education experts carefully observed the art lessons, and engaged in dialogue with the students.
"I am so impressed with these beautiful, wonderful, robust and lively kids who could speak about their works in imaginative, personal ways," Judith M. Burton, a professor with Teacher College, Columbia University, said at a round table discussion after meeting the kids.
However, such results don't come easily, points out He Lin, deputy director with the public education department of the National Art Museum of China.
"Art education has been absent in museum services in China for a long time," she says.
He is the pioneer in museum education of the Chinese mainland and founded the department in China's top art museum in 2004. Her department is among the few in Chinese museums catering to the growing public thirst for understanding of the exhibits.
He and her colleagues have organized various art education programs for primary, high school and university students over the past four years.
Among the most eye-catching projects are We Draw Pictures at the Museum for primary school students and Art Summer Camp for high school students.
"We hope to capture the interest of more people who are faced with an increasingly widening range of options for spending their spare time," she explains.
Since 2006, the National Art Museum's patronage has dramatically increased. The Dunhuang Art Exhibition staged early this year reportedly drew more than 600,000 visitors.
At peak time, the museum received more than 28,000 visitors a day for a single art show - a record high among Chinese museums.
Even so, 600,000 visitors account for less than 4 percent of the Chinese capital's population, not to mention the influx of domestic and international tourists, He points out.
"For decades, Chinese museums have been functioning as storage houses and exhibition venues," says National Art Museum of China's dean Fan Di'an.
"There should be a major shift in museums' functions, especially the art museums, to better serve the public, whose taxes support public museums."
The biggest challenges for new museums today are a lack of trained art educators and well-conceived curriculums, says Bruce Altshuler, director of the program in museum studies at New York University.
"Changing people's mindset and pushing forward reforms of the museum system in China are urgent tasks facing both museum managers and cultural policymakers," says Chen Jianming, director of Hunan Provincial Museum, who has worked in the museum sector for more than 30 years.
Chen once worked as a docent and had to follow a rigid protocol when explaining exhibitions.
"For a long time, visitors' demands have largely been ignored," Chen says, adding that rather than offering effective education, most museums reiterate information from books, sometimes resulting in dwindling attendance.
In addition, the art education sector "is often, if not always, an auxiliary function that suffers first when budgets dry up", points out director of Heilongjiang Art Museum Zhang Yujie.
Since April, many local museums have started scrapping admission fees, while major art museums still charge from 20 yuan to 30 yuan ($2.9-4.4) per person.
But director of Guangdong Museum of Art Wang Huangsheng says offering free admission would only partly resolve the problem.
"The key to offering successful art education in museums is providing better services for guests from various backgrounds," says Wang, who has spearheaded the Guangdong Museum of Art in 1997 to spread local art and culture in the Pearl River Delta.
Wang's museum not only offers customized education programs for youth, senior citizens, disabled people and expats but also does outreach to rural areas and venues such as prisons.
Qian Chuxi, an art professor with East China Normal University, proposes art education reforms in primary and high schools through combining school programs with in-gallery instruction.
Qian's recent survey of 2,000 youngsters showed that more than 30 percent had never visited any of Shanghai's museums.
"It is a shame that happens in Shanghai, one of the most international and culturally rich metropolises in China," Qian says.
However, Qian remains optimistic about the future.
"The admission-free policy, and continued boom in the art gallery and art museum sectors, would bring new opportunities for China's art museum education," she says.
Zhang Jianxin, an official with the Ministry of Culture, says more than 650 museums, including a handful of art museums, are now admission-free. "By the end of next year, the number will reach 1,500," he says.
(Source: China Daily)