I came out of Muxidi Station and according to my map the Capital Museum should be here, just outside the subway...I looked carefully to the left and right, walked around the back of the subway in case I'd missed it but I still couldn’t see any building which could resemble a museum.
I saw tall, long residential blocks with caged balconies and lots of washing hanging outside to dry in the crispy October sun. In front of me a happy street hawker was selling batteries which could be second hand as they were sold singly and not wrapped up. Nervously I pointed my finger at the map where the Capital Museum was written in Chinese and showed it to the happy hawker... He didn’t even look at it when he lifted his right arm and jabbed his finger over his shoulder.
It was early in the morning, I was on my own and didn’t speak any Chinese except for 'two beers' which wouldn’t be helpful in this situation. I was helpless and without too many choices decided to follow the jabbing of the finger.
Walking down the road with the map clearly visible in my hand I passed students, working people rushing to get late trains to the office, I met a tai chi group doing exercises and no one ever offered any help. In London by now I would have been taken by a total stranger right up to the Museum!
The only reason I knew I was going in the right direction when I saw lots of expensive cars with blacked-out windows stopping and disrupting traffic. Groups of four were getting out, looking in awe in front of them and taking photos. Suddenly in between two tall tower blocks the Capital Museum appeared in its full glory. The building melted into its surroundings, tall, grey, with a roof built in typical Chinese style but still modern with lots of glass and space.
Entry is free but you need to show your passport at reception. You also have to pass airport-style security checks and I was made to have a sip of my bottled water.
You can hire a walking/talking guide but my time was limited and I opted out. The Museum is very clean, has toilets on each floor, clearly signposted. And the Museum has facilities for disabled people. The only issue is that there is no restaurant to sit down and it definitely needs it as you could easily spend hours and hours here if you want to see everything in detail. There are vending machines to buy canned drinks.
The museum was originally situated in the north of Beijing close to Confucius Temple but the Chinese government opted to relocate to the present area, close to the Forbidden City in 2006 before the Olympic Games.
The building has five floors and each one is dedicated to a different era of China's history. The ground floor is very spacious and very light and this floor is usually reserved for temporarily exhibitions. When I visited in October 2011 the museum hosted the work of Van Gogh which I missed... Also there is a theatre which shows educational films about China's past.
On the first floor there are exhibits showing the history of Beijing with lots of jade relics and paintings, all with clear written descriptions in both Chinese and English.
The second floor hosts selected works of calligraphy, porcelain and ancient Buddhist relics. The third floor is a mixture of exhibits of the second and fourth floors – more porcelain, ancient jade, calligraphy, old Chinese fabrics, embroidery... The fourth floor is rich with ancient bronze art, jade, paintings...
The most interesting part was the fifth floor covering the history of Beijing and folk customs, showing the past with lots of interactive exhibits – houses built in the Ming style, weddings as they used to happen in old Peking during the Ming dynasty, the dressing codes for men and women, shoes... This is the most dynamic part of the museum as there are lots of old people walking and talking about each exhibit. I wished my Chinese extended beyond two beers so that I could understand what they were saying - they were so engrossed with the rich old embroideries and each hutong door.
A visit to the Capital Museum is fascinating, a must-see, as it shows original Chinese antiques in their full glory - a real cultural feast!
NOTE: The Museum is closed on Mondays but during the week it's open from 0900-1600. For group visits you need to pre-book either online or through your local agent.
Travel tip shared by Tara