Tate Modern displayed 'Release Ai Weiwei' on its lightbox last month

Museums urged to rethink touring exhibition to China

Patrick Steel, Issue 111/05, p5, 03.05.2011
Museums asked to take a stand on Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's detention
The former chairman of the Museums Association’s (MA) ethics committee has called for the British Council, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and the British Museum to rethink plans for a touring exhibition to China following the detention of the artist Ai Weiwei last month.

As part of the British Council-organised festival UK Now, to be held in China next year, the British Museum and V&A are collaborating with the National Museum of China on a major exhibition of Chinese and European ceramics to be shown at the museum in Beijing.

Tristram Besterman, a cultural consultant and former chairman of the MA’s ethics committee, said: “Museums should respond [to the detention of Ai Weiwei] on two levels.

“Publicly, they should refrain from endorsing a regime that is repressing artists. But behind that, there should be continued quiet, professional engagement.

“The British Council should think very hard about the exhibition. Although operating at arms-length, it is seen to represent the government.

“If the British Council is seen to be actively engaging like this, the Chinese authorities can manipulate that into an endorsement of their policies. I would be uncomfortable about that.”

A British Council spokesman said: “We believe that all artists and cultural institutions should have the freedom to explore and represent their societies through art.

“The arts provide powerful ways of establishing open dialogue between people and cultures, and this is essential to building understanding and trust. We do not support cultural boycotts – dialogue is better than isolation.

“It is a priority of the British Council to give audiences across China opportunities to experience the art, ideas and creative freedom of the UK.  It is the British Council’s role to forge links between our countries through the arts. UK Now will contribute to this.”

Weiwei was detained by police at Beijing airport on 3 April, but as Museums Journal went to press, had not been formally charged.

Weiwei’s stance on free speech and human rights has frequently set him against the Chinese government.

Click here to read this month's Museums Journal editorial on Ai Weiwei's detention