American Gift Helps China Display Past the Sackler Museum Is the Nation's First Modern Art-Archaeology Facility

Article excerpt

WHEN Arthur Sackler first visited China in 1979, he confronted official demands to return his vast collection of Chinese art and artifacts.

"Arthur said they had so many magnificent things in China, they really didn't need his collection back. In addition, he thought that the West should learn about the Chinese aesthetic," recalls Jill Sackler, widow of the well-known Sinophile and art collector. "He said what China really needed was a state-of-the-art working museum."

Almost a year after his death last May, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology will open this spring on the campus of Beijing University. The teaching facility will house the university's extensive archaeological holdings and become China's most modern and technically advanced museum, say Chinese and Western planners.

The opening comes amid a major transition in Chinese archaeology. But completion of the Beijing facility, which joins the family of Sackler museums in Cambridge, Mass., New York, Washington, and London, at this time is only coincidental, Sackler officials say.

The gallery has withstood delays, bureaucratic obstacles, Sackler's death, and even the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989 to open eight years after the first agreement was initialed, planners say.

Mrs. Sackler, who visits China often, remembers the stormy spring of 1989 and the subsequent massacre, which prompted some advisers to urge shelving the museum project.

"I was here in 1989 when the students were in the square. I thought democracy was coming slowly but surely in the nicest possible way. Then I left China, and when I got back to the United States, there were those shots on television. It was extraordinary, a terrible event," she says.

"There was some thought that we should withdraw for a while.... But the decision was made that this was a project originated by my husband and he wanted to complete it. We were doing something for the students and the Chinese people," she continues. For Chinese archaeologists, the museum will be a laboratory of museum design and know-how and a chance to bring needed Western technology to conservation efforts here.

The Arthur M. Sackler Foundation is funding two-thirds of the museum cost, estimated at more than $5 million, with the university providing the remainder. In a donation that has piqued some family rivalry, Sackler's first wife, Else, has given $200,000 for display cases and lighting.

Beijing University, China's most prestigious institution of higher learning, which is commonly referred to as Beida, has amassed 10,000 pieces in its archaeological collection in the last 60 years. But until 10 years ago, archaeology study was a poor cousin of the history department, and until the Sackler project, Beida's collection was homeless.

Cao Yin, the energetic Sackler assistant director and curator who has studied museum management in the United States and plans to return for more study at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. …