China’s new Age of Enlightenment

National Museum in Beijing looks to 18th-century Europe for its grand reopening

By András Szántó

Seeing the light: the National Museum of China reopened last month after a four-year renovation

Seeing the light: the National Museum of China reopened last month after a four-year renovation

Imagine you are a rising global superpower of 1.3bn people. You have spent three decades ramping up a $5 trillion economy and upgrading your infrastructure. Now you are reopening your national museum—where you tell your story to your citizens and visitors—after a four-year renovation and expansion that has made it the largest museum building in the world. The immense columned edifice overlooks your capital’s historic central square, a hallowed site that echoes with painful memories of the not-so-distant past. What topic do you choose for your first international exhibition?

For the National Museum of China, on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the topic is the European Enlightenment.

The choice is bold, and timely. China’s blazing resurgence since the late 1970s finds an apt precedent in the explosion of social, scientific and cognitive horizons that shook up 18th-century Europe, ushering in cherished institutions of modernity—museums and newspapers included. For China, there are lessons to be learned—good and bad—from the Age of Reason. “This exhibition is profoundly significant for China in furthering its understanding of the international world as well as recognising and embracing its own cultural values,” said Lu Zhangshen, the museum’s director-general.

Occupying almost 30,000 sq. ft in galleries devoted to international culture in the newly renovated building, which opened last month, “The Art of the Enlightenment”, on view for a whole year, is notable not only for its theme, but for the circumstances of its organisation. It is a product of cultural diplomacy writ large.

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