The exterior of the recently re-opened National Museum of China

“THIS MUSEUM must demonstrate the nation’s great riches,” wrote Jean-Marie Roland, the French Minister of the Interior in 1792. “France must extend its glory through the ages and to all peoples.” His letter to Enlightenment painter Jacques-Louis David concerned plans for the National Museum of France, better known today as the Louvre.

More than two hundred years later, building a national museum remains as fraught as ever with symbolism. As the revolutionary Louvre did for France, the National Museum of China impresses visitors with the wealth and grandeur of Chinese civilization, beginning with the entrance, a cavernous, neoclassical space that the architects have named the “grand forum.”

In the case of the National Museum, superlatives were consciously sought after from the start. Planners worked with architects to ensure that the final floor plan would— just barely— exceed that of the Met, making NMC the world’s largest museum. Re-opened to the public in March, the institution combines older buildings, what Hamburg-based architectural firm Gerkan, Marg and Partners have termed the “existing envelope,” with a “new core” structure. The original complex was composed of the Museum of the Chinese Revolution— one of the Ten Great Buildings inaugurated in 1959 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the PRC— the Museum of Chinese History, and the Central Hall, an edifice dedicated to the memory of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin.

As such, the former complex was a landmark of Chinese socialist architecture, and authorities opposed radical changes to its basic outline. According to the German firm, “After prolonged discussions with the client, the design scheme was revised in order to attune the new museum building harmoniously to the external look of the old building, while ensuring old and new were nonetheless distinguishable from each other.” It becomes a fitting metaphor for China today: a tenuous claim to continuity with the past, in which Mao Zedong Thought gives birth logically to Deng Xiaoping Theory and so on, while sweeping material changes provide evidence of “progress.”

The National Museum of China’s Neoclassical entrance

The former complex had been a hollowed-out version of the Great Hall of the People, its counterpart across Tiananmen Square, with only the façade rendered on the same scale due to funding shortages in 1959. The “new core” of the National Museum unites the formerly separate buildings into a solid, robust structure whose colonnades no longer reflect an empty gesture toward grandeur. The National Museum building, representing millennia of Chinese culture, now stands as a true symbolic counterweight to the political power of the Communist Party, as manifested across the way.

If the exterior of the National Museum suggests unity, the vast interior space conveys a sense of fragmentation. A map helpfully leads visitors to stairways and elevators, yet uniformed guards block the grand staircases, directing visitors instead toward a narrow bottleneck escalator. Peering downstairs, one observes a vast basement— the map shows a theater, production studio, and other facilities— but apologetic attendants state that this area is not currently open to the public.

The first international exhibition at the National Museum of China is “The Art of the Enlightenment,” a marquee collaboration between the National Museum and several world-class German institutions in Berlin, Dresden and Munich. Amid vaunted rhetoric about dialogue-sparking intercultural exchange, the Germans have put together an ambitious, year-long survey of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century works grouped around themes such as scientific progress, the rediscovery and romanticization of antiquity, and the engagement of Enlightenment artists with the dark, irrational side of human nature.

The interior of the National Museum of China’s auditorium. After the re-opening, the museum collaborated with three prominent German museums to put on the first international exhibition, “The Art of the Enlightenment.”

Most historical museums in China have been free to the public since 2008, and the National Museum is no exception, despite the hefty RMB 2.5 billion price tag for renovation. For the German exhibition, however, entry costs RMB 30. The paywall has unmistakable demographic consequences. Whereas the line into the museum was once a mix of young couples, professionals, retirees, and visitors from the countryside, attendees at the Enlightenment exhibition are mostly a well-heeled group that seem to react to the works in English as often as in Chinese.

The contrast between the dimly lit, spacious chambers of the German exhibition and the crowds upstairs who jostle to get a glimpse of a famous Shang Dynasty bronze ding vessel or a Tang Dynasty Buddha is striking. The rank-and-file National Museum visitor, it seems, is intent on getting a close-up look at the triumphs of China’s past, and could care less about Voltaire.

In The Art Newspaper, journalist and critic András Szántó concluded a survey of the National Museum focusing on the Enlightenment show with a lingering question: “Having embraced a culture of unchecked materialism, will Chinese citizens rediscover intangible sources of value and meaning?” Considering the contents of the museum itself, it’s more relevant to wonder what form this rediscovery will take: a focus on the individual’s freedom, or in Kant’s words, “to make public use of one’s reason in all matters”? Or a Napoleonic celebration of the nation in all its glory?

Kirk Denton, a professor at Ohio State University and a scholar of Chinese museums, wonders whether the museum’s redesign reflects a larger shift in contemporary culture. He notes how, for the first time, a single building houses displays on modern and contemporary history alongside relics from China’s imperial dynasties. In the context of a shift away from socialist ideology and an apparent rise in nationalism among young Chinese in recent decades, Denton wonders, “Do the glories of the imperial past lay a historical foundation for a new form of imperial grandeur?”

Inside the Enlightenment show, which seems to leap abruptly from the ancien régime to the Empire, a captioned portrait of Napoleon notes that he “combines the two contradictory sides of the Revolution: bourgeois progress and imperial power.” Overall, the National Museum of China suggests that this contradiction remains unresolved.