The Guangdong Museum’s exterior was designed to resemble a traditional wooden treasure box. // © Huang Qing / Guangdong Museum
Hurrying up the entrance ramp at the Guangdong Museum in Guangzhou, China’s third largest city and home to more than 14 million people, I was determined to see something ancient.
My first few days in the country had certainly provided an abundance of modernity: tall buildings, traffic jams on an elevated freeway, the soaring, 1,970-foot Canton Tower and the striking lines of the angular Guangzhou Opera House, opened in the city’s chic Tianhe district in 2010.
But now I wanted to see something terrifically old, something more in line with the images of the China I grew up with — maybe a Ming vase or a stone sculpture of a Chinese emperor from long ago.
I don’t mind admitting the museum’s contemporary exterior worried me a bit. Looking a great deal like a massive LEGO brick centered high on a grassy hill, the building definitely fit in with the crowd of futuristic skyscrapers nearby. But what kind of objects were inside? Was there anything old in this building designed with such a newfangled aesthetic?
The answer is a resounding yes. Home to a wonderful collection of traditional Chinese paintings and calligraphy, ceramics, gilded wood carvings, bronze works, jade carvings and much more, the Guangdong Museum is loaded with remarkable treasures from the region’s rich past.
While I don’t remember seeing any vases from the Ming dynasty, I spent a great deal of time admiring the museum’s incredible ceramics exhibition. I paused for quite a while in front of a painted jug about the size of a Gatorade bottle crafted by people of the Majiayao culture somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000 years ago.
As I explored the museum further, satisfying my craving for the ancient with a host of extraordinary objects, I also learned that the five-story building’s exterior was intended to resemble a traditional treasure box. Artisans commonly crafted these boxes from wood for the Chinese aristocracy to store valued possessions, and they often featured hidden compartments with puzzle-like components.
So it turns out the Guangdong Museum, opened in 2010 and surrounded by the ultramodern architecture of Guangzhou’s Tianhe financial district, was not at all intended to pay homage to an extraordinarily popular children’s toy but rather to remind visitors of a long-appreciated example of playful Chinese craftsmanship.
Once outside again, gazing back at the building before heading off into the muggy Guangzhou afternoon, I decided the treasure box explanation made a great deal more sense than my earlier LEGO hunch.
Open 9 am to 5 pm Thursday through Sunday, the Guangdong Museum is free to the public, though foreign travelers must show a passport to enter.