I had initially intended to visit the National Museum that abuts Tiananmen Square, but someone informed me that it might be closed. When I spoke to the concierge in my hotel, he suggested the Capital Museum, which had apparently opened in its present location in May 2006, and so, being relatively new, was not as well-known.
Let me digress for a moment and note that the title “concierge” was an incongruous one for this hardly post-pubescent youth, obviously a recent arrival to the big city from the countryside. All the workers in the hotel, which was located in the north of Beijing away from the tourist areas, were startlingly young and lacking in English skills, which, since I am even more lacking in Chinese ones, made communication difficult. Questions such as, “Can you do something about the strange odor in my room?” or, “Why is the beauty salon in the hotel open at 2 a.m.?” took a lot of rewording and gesticulating to get across. Still, with patience, it could be done, and after much flipping through guidebooks with said very green concierge, he finally came up with the Capital Museum as the place for me to go. Not that he had been there himself—he wanted to go, he relayed to me through various signs, but work hours were long at the hotel and he hadn’t yet gotten around to it. Still, he was eager that I go, and took the time to plot my journey by subway. Subway was the obvious method, since traffic in Beijing, not to mention smog, is so bad that getting anywhere above ground takes a toll.
I followed the concierge’s instructions and, after three changes on the clean and efficient subway, emerged about five blocks from the museum. In Beijing, if you are anywhere within a half dozen blocks of something, you consider yourself close by. If I were to give one piece of advice to potential travelers to this extraordinary city, it would be: bring comfortable shoes. Even I, known to wear 4-inch heels on a mountain hike, found myself carrying around flats. I brought these out when I arrived in front of the museum, which was fronted by a vast expanse of slanting stone steps.
Let me say at once that the Capital Museum is a spanking new structure that looks as if it sprang up overnight to the surprise of everything around it. This is, admittedly, not so unusual in Beijing, which seems to be under the enchantment of well-financed developers: Whole neighborhoods are rubbing their eyes in disbelief, wondering what happened to the corner hutongs. But while much of the city has been rebuilt according to some vaguely modern blueprint, many of the new buildings are depressingly conventional, evoking such American design disasters as Co-op City. Not so the Capital Museum. It is a spectacular edifice — an enormous stone bulwark of a structure with a large steel canopy framing the entrance and an elliptical brass protrusion in the upper right quadrant. The building projects a mixture of menace and whimsy, and looks as though it were a child-giant’s notion of a fortress. I have since learned that the structure was designed jointly by the French architectural firm AREP and the China Architecture Design and Research Group, a noteworthy collaboration. When the Chinese, with their human resources, start teaming up with the French, with their aesthetic resources, there’s no saying to what heights they may soar.
I climbed the steps of the building and entered the massive foyer space. The inside was as awesome as the outside. The ground floor, a sweeping vista of stone and wood, is about a city block in length and width. Toward the back of this space, escalators on each side climb to five stories. There is also a broad set of stone steps leading down to the lower level.
After purchasing my ticket for the special exhibitions (tickets for the permanent collection in the museum are free*), I began to explore. Most signs had English translations, though the explanatory notes for the exhibits were only sporadically translated. The lower level contained the special exhibits, which included an impressive photography show about the Beijing Olympics, the photos blown up to poster size and relaying the optimism and pride associated with this pivotal event in recent Chinese history.
On the upper floors of the museum were collections of artifacts: porcelain, calligraphy, and jade, as well as an exhibit on the history of Beijing and various spaces in which traditional life had been reproduced using models and preserved materials. Everything was meticulously and beautifully displayed, though in some cases the vastness of the exhibition space dwarfed its contents. I was struck by the fact that though the museum was very large and in many rooms I was alone, it was far from empty. I had seen a row of buses on one side of the building when I came in and now realized that these were Chinese workers who had been brought in from the countryside for the day. At lunch time, some ate sandwiches and drank from thermoses on the benches in front of the exhibition halls on each floor. I noticed in one group a spectacled man with a picturesquely creased face pointing a little flashlight at the porcelain vases, examining each with unusual intensity and scrupulousness. One would be hard-pressed to see working-class Americans, and indeed, any group of Americans, as intent on studying their country’s cultural history.
The Capital Museum had two gift shops, which, as an aficionado of gift shops, I can attest were top of the line and very reasonably priced. There was also a cafeteria and a state-of-the-art theater where a short film about the history of the city was shown at regular intervals.
The only snag in my visit involved getting home. After spending almost three hours in the galleries, I was not up for making the multiple changes required to return to my hotel by subway and so determined to take a cab, even though I knew it would be a much longer trip. But getting a cab in China is no easy feat. The Capital Museum is located on the side of a multi-lane highway in Beijing’s major east-west thoroughfare, and the traffic that day, though dense, was moving at a brisk pace. I tried to hail one of the many cabs zipping by, but none appeared interested in stopping. Perhaps they couldn’t. Unlike New York, where a taxi will stop in the middle of the street and snarl traffic for a mile behind, there are stiff penalties in Beijing for illegal stopping.
Returning to the bottom of the museum steps, I asked a genial looking guard if he knew where I could get a taxi, but he could not understand me. I said “taxi” a number of times (and taxi is in fact written on the tops of cabs in China), but still, he was clueless, shaking his head while smiling and peering at me curiously. Finally, two older, elegantly dressed women, overhearing me speak, asked in impeccable, British-accented English if they could help. It turned out that they were English teachers at one of the city’s universities, and they proceeded to escort me to the corner of the street. The older and most energetic then walked out rather far into oncoming traffic and held out her hand in the manner I associate with seasoned New Yorkers. But even she was unsuccessful: cabs would turn the corner, let out passengers, and whiz away, unwilling to wait either because they were done with their shift or because seeing me, they sensed they would have to hassle with English. Eventually, when one such cab stopped to release passengers, my English-speaking friends pushed me inside (the key, it seems, is not to wait long enough for the driver to escape). I showed him the card with my destination, and sat back for the hour-long ride back to the hotel where I would inform my boy concierge that the Capital Museum was definitely worth a visit on his day off. • 18 January 2011
*I later explored the Capital Museum website and discovered that the museum has an elaborate reservation system for free tickets. Reservations hardly seem necessary, given the size of the place, and indeed, one date in early January shows two places reserved and 3,998 places available. If one wants an example of Chinese bureaucracy and dubious English, one ought to take a look at the website. The preliminary statement on the reservation page will give you an idea of what I mean: “Reservation System for Free Ticket of the Capital Museum. The Capital Museum will be open to the public for free from March 28, 2008, in compliance with the Announcement on free Admission to National Museums and Memorials jointly issued by the Publicity Department of CPC Central Committee, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Culture, and State Administration of Cultural Heritage. The reservation system for free ticket now starts working on booking free tickets for you to visit.”