Buy a ticket, turn the corner and the first section of Guanfu Museum is devoted to a litter of cats. Ma Weidu, founder of China’s first private museum is a great lover of all things feline and ‘Pumpkin’, a piece of substantial orange fluff stalks around the exterior, tail up, as its resident guardsman. After 20 years of collecting, dubbing himself a ‘lonely torch holder walking at night’, Ma was the first Chinese collector to put open his collection for public viewing.
Private museums have since become glory projects for Chinese individuals with deep pockets (also a way to secure lucrative tax allowances from the government who supports the buying back of Chinese heritage). Shanghai’s West Bund is lined with Budi Tek’s Yuz Museum, Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei’s Long Museum, soon to be joined by karaoke king Qiao Zhibing’s Tank Space.
Yet while they call themselves museums, they all seem to fit the gallery model more. What distinguishes a museum from a gallery? Arguably it is less about size but whether it has a permanent collection, about public education and outreach efforts and contribution to the overall art scene.
Guanfu’s least impressive aspect is its exterior, tiled in a faux fairytale castle style with kitsch brick red and unappealing grey. But step in, and directly opposite is a rippling screen of Taoist gods. Move to your right and a round opening frames two cloisonné enamel vases encircled by Daoist designs. While the National Museum is a mass of objects, historical pieces and replicas chaotically arranged, there is a sense of order and explanation to Guanfu’s selection.
Guanfu’s collection and its arrangement of mock living spaces is essentially what I thought would be in the Forbidden City. While it is a must for the Beijing first timer to be shunted through tight security and queues to appreciate the sheer scale of where armies paraded, and concubines flirted with emperors, the vast red halls contain very little of what used to be. But wandering around Guanfu’s arrangements of aristocratic spaces is a convincing step back into Beijing’s courtly history.