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