Among the more than 30 million artifacts kept in China’s public museums, nearly half are suffering from various degrees of damage. Renovation work for so many relics is a tremendous task, and there’s just not enough qualified professionals to handle it.
Beijing’s Palace Museum was the imperial palace during the Ming and Qing dynasties. During those five centuries, it collected 1.8 million artworks and historic treasures, but fewer than 10,000 are displayed each year.
“They are very fragile, like this tassel, which will break the moment you touch it. We do maintenance on these mainly by removing dust and renovation,” said Chen Yang, a staff member at Palace Museum.
The relics are vulnerable to temperature, humidity and pollution. Some of them haven’t been touched for decades, and their condition is unknown even to the staff.
The Shaanxi History Museum is facing the same problem. Among the 370,000 relics the museum houses, rusted bronzeware pieces and murals damaged by worms are the biggest headaches.
“If the rust on the bronzeware pieces is not gotten rid of soon, it will spread to other places. And our murals from the Tang Dynasty are rarely seen in other museums. The murals were unearthed from tombs, so they are infested with worms that came from the soil. These problems needs to be fixed soon,” said Cheng Jianzheng, director at Shaanxi History Museum.
Things are even worse in the Dunhuang Grottoes of Gansu province. Among its 492 caves, more than 270 face problems such as fading colors and peeling surfaces. The surface of the murals is further harmed by polluted air caused by frequent hoards of visitors. The site opens fewer than 20 caves each day, but a million and a half visitors per year is still a major threat.
According to a recent study, half of the relics held by 3,400 state-owned museums are damaged in various ways. Nearly one-fifth of those are severely damaged and need immediate attention. But there are only 2,000 people qualified to do the work. If one of those people renovated 50 relics a year, it would take 150 years to repair all the severely damaged relics.