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Museum preserves hutong history

Beijing's hutong, the traditional narrow alleys that wind through the city, are struggling to survive, slowly disappearing in the name of modernization.

But the local community of Shijia Hutong has found a way to preserve its slice of old Beijing.

The Shijia Hutong Museum-Beijing's first museum themed on one specific hutong-has been running for one month at the Courtyard No 24 of Shijia Hutong, Dongcheng district.

The museum is a joint project between the Prince's Charities Foundation China and the Chaoyangmen subdistrict government. It is a community museum to document ShijiaHutong's history and culture, and enhance the quality of local community life.

The project is there sultofa meeting between the United Kingdom's Prince of Wales and China's then-president Hu Jintao in London in April 2009. They exchanged views about the preservation of Beijing's hutong.

As one of the oldest hutong in Beijing, Shijia Hutong was initially built in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and renovated in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Many celebrated Chinese figures such as intellectuals and officials once lived here.

The Courtyard No 24 was once owned by the writer couple Chen Xiying (1896-1970) and Ling Shuhua (1900-90).From 1958 to 2002 the courtyard was reused as a kindergarten after the couple moved to the UK. Since then, the house has been left unused and in need of renovation.

"We follow two fundamental principles on the project-to restore the courtyard as authentically as possible by using traditional Chinese craftsmanship and local materials; and to incorporate as much green technology-geo-thermal for example-as possible into the buildings," says the Prince's Charities Foundation China Beijing representative Matthew Hu.

"We create a modern building in terms of its use and relevance; but in the style it is entirely keeping with the heritage tradition of the hutong," says James Furse, executive director of the Prince's Social Enterprises and director on the board of Prince's Charities Foundation China.

"It's not just a museum; it's about capturing the essence of the community today by placing it in the context-partly of the past, mostly of the present and the future," he says.

Construction work started in 2011. Most of the bricks and ground tiles were collected from the neighborhood. The museum maintains the former structure of the courtyard, housing 10 gallery rooms and one multifunction hall used for interactive events such as lectures.

The interior decoration and exhibition display area has been overseen by the Chaoyangmen sub-district government.

"Seeing the museum develop is like watching a child grow," says Chaoyangmen sub-district office director Chen Zhijian.

The permanent exhibition covers general information about hutong, the history and photo archives of Shijia Hutong, the celebrities that once lived here, and the everyday life of the local residents.

In the main gallery room, a large model of the entire Shijia Hutong, recreated from an old aerial image, is the center of attention. Next to the model, a short documentary depicting some of the oral histories of the local residents, is played on loop.

Objects that were once used in daily life help to give a sense of the different time periods. All exhibits were donated by people living in the neighborhood.

Two rooms have been set up to depict a typical living room from a former time period. One depicts the 1950s to 1960s and the other the 1970s to 1980s. The rooms reflect the economic and social change over that time.

"Our museum is just a start. We will call upon the neighborhood to protect the hutong together, to make the entire hutong a museum, and to make every brick and every plant of it precious exhibits," says Chaoyangmen sub-district office director Chen.

The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday and is free to the public.