At China’s New Museum, History Toes Party Line

An exhibit at the new National Museum of China recreates Mao Zedong declaring the start of Communist control. An exhibit at the new National Museum of China recreates Mao Zedong declaring the start of Communist control. Sim Chi Yin for The New York Times

At the elaborately renovated National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square, visitors interested in the recent history of the world’s fastest rising power can gaze at the cowboy hat that Deng Xiaoping once wore when he visited the United States, or admire the bullhorn that President Hu Jintao used to exhort people to overcome hardship after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008.

But if their interests run to the Cultural Revolution that tore the country apart from 1966 to 1976 and resulted in millions of deaths, they will have to search a back corner of the two-million-square-foot museum, which will complete its opening this month, for a single photograph and three lines of text that are the only reference to that era.

China spent more than a decade and nearly $400 million to remake the National Museum into a leading showcase of history and culture, a monument to its rising power no less grand — it is designed to be the world’s largest museum under one roof — and more enduring than the Olympic Games it hosted in 2008.

But one tradition has remained firmly in place: China will not confront its own history. The museum is less the product of extensive research, discovery or creativity than the most prominent symbol of the Communist Party’s efforts to control the narrative of history and suppress alternative points of view, even those that exist within the governing elite. It is also an example of how China finds it difficult to create cultural institutions that prove equal to its economic achievements.

Interviews with participants describe a tortured reconstruction that dragged on years longer than envisioned, with plans constantly revised to accommodate political twists and turns, many decided personally by top party leaders.

Officials rejected proposals for a permanent historical exhibition that would have discussed the disasters of early Communist rule — especially the Great Leap Forward, a political campaign and resulting famine that killed more than 20 million. Some organizers also wanted a candid appraisal of the Cultural Revolution, a decade-long attack on traditional culture and learning, but that effort was squashed.

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