There are nearly two thousand museums in China. They may be divided into eight categories according to their focus: history, archaeological and historical sites, memorials, art, natural science, ethnography, comprehensive, and specialized. The categorization and research of museums is of great significance to their development. Of all the museums in China, the Palace Museum and the National Museum of China are the most famous.
Art museums touch upon a broad range of fields that include paintings, calligraphy, applied arts, drama, music, film, and other cultural products. At first glance, the mission of these museums—preservation and exhibition—seems to be the same as that of history museums and comprehensive museums, but in fact they each have a different focus. For example, an art museum collects bronze vessels in order to present the heights of ancient art; a history museum collects bronze vessels to demonstrate how people lived. The most representative art museums are the Palace Museum and the Shanghai Museum.
Founded in 1925, the Palace Museum is China’s largest and most famous museum. Also known as the Forbidden City, this museum used to be the imperial palace during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368–1911). The palace is comprised of more than nine thousand structures and is the largest and most complete ancient building complex in China. It preserves as many as one million items, of which only ten thousand are on regular display. The Shanghai Museum was founded in 1952 and houses over a million pieces, many of which are national treasures. The museum has ten exhibition halls: ancient bronzes, sculpture, ceramics, jade, pre-modern paintings, calligraphy, seals, coins, Ming and Qing dynasty furniture, and the art of China’s ethnic groups.
The National Museum of China established ninety years ago is located in Beijing. A history museum exhibits items and conducts research related to the history of a country, a certain region, or a certain profession. This kind of museum aims for a systematic manner of imparting history. The Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution is the only large-scale military history museum in China. The Exhibition Hall of Ancient Warfare systematically and briefly outlines the history of wars that have occurred throughout China’s history up to 1840. It highlights more than one hundred classic battles, such as the battle won by Cao Gui’s advice to wait, the Battle of Maling, and the Battle of Red Cliff.
Although memorial museums are usually not large, they are numerous and have a wide geographical distribution. Memorial museums of people basically display the life story of the person. An example is the Museum of Dr. Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925).
The main characteristic of comprehensive museums is that they collect and exhibit items related to social history, culture and art, natural science, and more. For example, the Inner Mongolia Museum shows a brief picture of the natural history from far antiquity to modern times, as well as the history of civilization in the region.
The renowned homo erectus remains, known as “Peking Man,” date from 400,000 to 500,000 years ago. Tens of thousands of archaeological sites of ancient people engaged in various activities of daily life have been discovered. They include: houses and villages; sites for handicrafts such as copper smelting and porcelain making. They are collectively referred to as archaeological sites. The Museum of the Western Han Dynasty Mausoleum of the Nanyue King falls into this category. In 1983, a graveyard was accidentally discovered during construction in Xiangshangang, Guangzhou. This discovery yielded new knowledge of this mysterious kingdom.
The protective measures taken by museums are of a high standard. Because cultural relics are made of a wide variety of materials, they have different preservation requirements. For example, some are vulnerable to insects, while others must be kept away from sunlight; the scientists, technicians, and curators put the relics through insecticidal treatments as dictated by their materials.
Restoration is an indispensable part of a museum’s purpose. Occasional surprises will appear during restoration. For example, in 1959, while the Museum of Chinese History (now known as the National Museum of China) was removing rust from a bronze vessel, an inscription was discovered that read “Fuchai, King of Wu.” Suddenly, a common water vessel became an important relic that had once been owned by the last king of Wu, Fuchai (528–473 BCE).