The Museum of Tap Water (part 2)

As I noted earlier, Beijing has a museum devoted to tap water — apparently the only one in the world. Another translation of its name is the Beijing Water Supply Museum. It was incredibly hard to find. None of a dozen people in the neighborhood knew where it was. It is on the grounds of the government company that supplies tap water. While I was there, there was only one other visitor, an American. Like me, he’d noticed it on Google Maps.

I loved it. One of the exhibits was called “10-Day Imperial Approval”. Permission to start the water company (around 1910) was requested from the Emperor. Approval came in a lightning-fast ten days from the Emperor’s mother on yellow paper. Only the Emperor, his father, and his mother were allowed to use yellow in decorative ways. The penalty for breaking this rule was death. In the early days of the water company, slips of paper gave you permission to collect your water in a bucket. A photo of an early president of the company (thin, young, shaved head, high-collar traditional shirt) made him look more like a dashing criminal than a captain of industry.

For anti-terrorist reasons, there was nothing about how the water was processed.

Museums are usually devoted to the rare, beautiful, and intricate, which why a museum of tap water sounds like a joke. When Paul Goldberger, the New Yorker‘s architecture critic, devotes his best-buildings-of-the-year list to nine show-off buildings and an art exhibit — none of them advancing the art of making the houses and workplaces where we spend most of our lives — I am glad to see agreement that something is missing.

The other visitor was in Beijing to visit his sister, a high school exchange student, living with a family that speaks no English, who had checked the wrong box on her visa application and was unable to come home for Christmas. She was having a great time and now wanted to apply to a college with a Flagship Program — you go to the American school for two years and then a Chinese school for the last two years. What a sea change! Americans treat another country as equal. Americans grasp that someone else might have something to teach us. At Berkeley a few years ago, the psychology department had a day-long get-together to discuss various issues. About a meeting about one of them, I suggested that we look at how other departments had handled it; maybe we could learn from them. Bad idea, I was told, they’re supposed to copy us.

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