Volunteer offers free tours of the classics

Updated: 2011-12-02 07:26

By Zhang Zixuan (China Daily)

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Volunteer offers free tours of the classics

Zhang Peng, a 28-year-old volunteer guide in Beijing, introduces a Western sculpture to visitors at the World Art Museum in this undated photo. Provided to China Daily

BEIJING - During the week, Zhang Peng works behind an office desk. It's only on the weekends that he says he gets to pursue his part-time passion for classical art.

The 28-year-old spends much of his spare time as a volunteer tour guide at Beijing's biggest museums.

This past weekend alone he led six groups on a tour that took them to a Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) exhibition at the National Museum of China and a cultural relics show at the Capital Museum, among other sites.

He also organized two trips for school children, taking them through a display called From the Academy to the Avant-garde at the World Art Museum.

"Explaining classicalism and romanticism to a 4-year-old can be quite frustrating," said Zhang, who often suffers a cough after a long day of talking.

Since becoming one of the first volunteer guides at the National Museum of China in 2002, Zhang has led hundreds of thousands of people on more than 1,500 free tours - lasting roughly 3,000 hours.

"Museums are like a religion to people like me," said the amateur historian. "If we can persuade more people to go to museums and learn about Chinese and foreign cultures, it benefits everyone."

Among Zhang's greatest abilities is the way he gets many young people interested in the past.

He said he works hard to capture the imagination of the children in his group by telling dramatic stories, and encourages them to open their eyes and observe the artwork on display.

Moreover, he also teaches youngsters the importance of not touching the art, as well as not eating or shouting in the museums.

"I used to just glance at the pieces and their labels without taking anything in," said Chen Ziqi, a 10th-grade student from Beijing 101 Middle School. "When Zhang led us, I learned so much more. I actually even remember the artworks he talked about."

Because of his popularity, Zhang's tours for children are always fully booked in advance.

Giving tours to older children and adults is a completely different story, however. He said he gives even more details about the artists' lives, background and styles.

Zhang, who was the 2009 winner of the National Volunteer Presentation Competition, said he usually prepares a 10-hour script for a two-hour tour.

"When I prepare, I think of myself as an audience member," he explained. "I ask myself questions and then try to answer them."

Wang Limei, curator of the World Art Museum, added: "Like many good volunteers, Zhang is recognized for his preparations and excellent presentations."

Last December, Zhang launched Our April, an NGO aimed at providing museum tours to rural children and the children of migrant workers. He was also awarded the Youth Medal by the Communist Youth League of China and National Youth Union on this year's Youth Day, which falls on May 4.

Zhang now plans to publish a book about the artworks he talks about so he can make them more widely known.

As a lifelong student of ancient Greek and Roman arts, classicalism and romanticism, he is also looking forward to visiting the styles' places of origin, as well as working with museums overseas.

"I heard the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York went from having six volunteers to 1,200 in just a few years. We should be learning from its experience," Zhang added.