The stench hits you the moment the door opens. Inside, which is not temperature- or humidity-controlled, are 600 pieces of silk textiles from the only mausoleum excavated of the 13 containing the remains of Chinese emperors from the 14th to 17th centuries.
"Silk gets carbonized and deteriorates in a natural environment such as the one in the storehouse of our museum, where temperature and humidity fluctuate," said an employee of the Museum of Ming Imperial Tombs in Beijing better known as the Ming Tombs explaining the bad odour.
But the emperors' silks are not the only items in danger from the elements. Cultural relics in 63 of the 81 museums in the capital are reportedly deteriorating daily because of inadequate and poor storage facilities.
The Beijing Ethnic Cultural Palace (BECP), which owns perhaps the city's largest collection of exhibits from ethnic minorities, and the Dabaotai Museum of the Western Han Tombs, containing relics from about 2,000 years ago, are facing similar predicaments.
The alarming state of affairs was revealed in a survey by the Beijing Municipal Cultural Heritage Administration in December which was conducted after many rare books were damaged when a heating pipe burst at BECP.
Museum officials fear that this might not be an isolated disaster. The 81 museums hold about 620,000 cultural relics in their collections; and about 80 per cent are vulnerable to changes in weather conditions.
Among them are ancient textiles, paintings and calligraphy, books and other documents, and bronze and other metal artefacts. Their deterioration can be rapid once they are excavated.
"Our museum lost 23 relics in the past two decades," said Zhou Zhengyi, director of the Dabaotai Museum of the Western Han Tombs. "They have gone so bad they are of little value."
The Dabaotai Museum in southern Beijing, established in 1983, boasts a collection of jade, silk textiles, lacquer artefacts and metal and pottery objects from the tombs of a duke and his wife in the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24), China's equivalent of the Roman Empire.
They were unearthed in 1974 but, since then, the 806 pieces have been kept in three flat brick houses which look no different from the dilapidated hutong in the city.
"We just dare not touch the artefacts in the storehouse,?said an employee of the Dabaotai Museum. "When the weather gets cold, we can even hear sounds of crackling, the deterioration of the two-millennium-old metalware.?
The roof of one of the storehouses leaked during heavy rain in 2003. Staff were only able to remove the metal artefacts into offices and leave the rest of the items where they were, according to a report in the Chinese-language Beijing News. Despite the damage, no major improvement works to the sites have been reported since.
Water leaks, broken windows and even an unexpectedly hot and humid summer can cause irreparable damage to items. The burst heating pipe at BECP, for instance, led to a most heart-wrenching loss last November.
Three-century-old "Da Zang Jing?(Chinese Buddhist Tripitaka), believed to be the most complete collection of Buddhist documents in China, became soaked in hot, almost boiling, water. Dubbed Buddhism's encyclopaedia, the work includes 1,675 canons and 7,240 volumes. There are only three copies; the others are in the Forbidden City and the National Library.
Also left floating in the water from the burst pipe were more than 200,000 volumes of ancient documents of about 55 ethnic groups in China.
Wei Ling, BECP office manager, told China Daily that the storehouse was too crammed and facilities too basic. Other museum managers have also complained about the lack of appropriate facilities.
From 1999 to 2003, the Beijing municipal government allocated an average of 8.21 million yuan (US$1.04 million) a year to the conservation of relics in collections of all 81 museums, according to the Beijing Municipal Cultural Heritage Administration survey. It meant that, on average, each museum only received around 100,000 yuan (US$12,345) a year for its maintenance.
"The lack of funds is the primary challenge the museums face,?remarked Guo Hong, an official of the Beijing Municipal Cultural Heritage Administration, and director of the survey.
However, in the particular case of the Tripitaka accident, the problem seems more complicated than just money. A few years ago, according to museum professionals, the government allocated more than 2 million yuan (US$246,600) to the BECP for upgrading its storage facilities, such as temperature and humidity-control devices. And, according to the government regulations on the management of cultural relics, no heating pipes should be installed in warehouses.
"Chaotic management prevails in museums, where a lot of managers lack professional training,?noted Su Donghai, retired curator of the National Museum of China.
To salvage BECP's Tripitaka, experts from the National Library were called in after the accident. The volumes were repaired almost completely, although some sheets of paper are now so thin that they look almost transparent when held to the light. And a number of words on pages are blurred. Other ancient documents that were harmed by the BECP accident, about 200,000 volumes, have been kept in cold storage ever since.
But problems cannot be blamed solely on managers. Only 40 per cent of the employees at municipal-level museums have knowledge of conservation, the cultural heritage administration's survey said, while in district-level museums, the figure is 32 per cent.
"Well-trained conservationists are needed everywhere, and few are willing to work for a local museum, where the average employee is paid about 2,000 yuan (US$246) a month,?said Zhou, director of Dabaotai Museum.
Of the 21 employees at his museum, four are working on conserving the collections ?two trained in traditional methods and two new graduates. Some museums, such as the Beijing Museum of Art and Design, simply do not have anyone able to mend collection items, the survey said.
Only slowly are things starting to improve. Construction of an underground storage facility will begin this year to hold the Ming Tomb relics, on which the central and local governments are expected to spend 70 million yuan (US$8.64 million), according to Beijing Times.
Source: China Daily