​Vietnam’s obsession with mediocre but costly museums

Museums in Vietnam cost a fortune to build, but often fail to attract visitors

The National Museum of History in Hanoi. Photo: Tuoi Tre

The Ministry of Construction’s recent request for the state budget to move forward with the construction of a history museum in Hanoi has been met with public backlash.

The new National Museum of History, intended to replace the current one in Hoan Kiem District, is estimated to cost VND11 trillion (US$485 million) to build.

The ministry’s request has ignited public criticism from local experts, who deem the project ‘wasteful’, given that the current museum continues to struggle to get by.

It has raised the broader issue of Vietnam’s repeated investment in big, costly museums that fail to attract visitors due to their poor content.

The National Museum of History in Hanoi. Photo: Tuoi Tre
The National Museum of History in Hanoi. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Deserted museums

Opened on the thousandth anniversary of the Vietnamese capital in 2010, the Hanoi Museum in Nam Tu Liem District was filled with artifacts on its opening day and was hoped to become a highlight of the city’s tourism.

However, the gigantic, reverse pyramid-shaped museum has fallen into disrepair ever since.

As of Sunday, few artifacts could be seen on display on the first floor of the building, while the entire second floor was ‘closed for maintenance’.

Only the third and fourth floors remained populated with a variety of items, but no clear concept or style of exhibition was observable.

Despite the museum offering free entrance to all visitors, its curators said that only between 100 and 200 people visit the museum on average per day.

On weekends, the number rises slightly to 400 visitors per day.

According to Dr. Nguyen Dinh Chien, an appraiser at the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the Hanoi Museum has struggled to identify a coherent display style for itself over the past seven years due to constantly shifting ideas from one city leader to the next.

The city’s administration recently hired foreign experts to consult on a major makeover of the museum, the launch of which is set for 2018.

The Hanoi Museum in Hanoi. Photo: Tuoi Tre
The Hanoi Museum in the capital. Photo: Tuoi Tre

A common challenge

Not only are deserted museums in Vietnam struggling to survive, even museums constantly flooded with visitors say they barely make enough to be financially independent.

The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology is another such example.

The museum welcomes 500,000 visitors a year and has been named among the top destinations in Vietnam by the country’s National Administration of Tourism for three consecutive years, but it makes hardly enough to cover its cost of operation.

Pham Thi Thanh Mai, vice director of the Ho Chi Minh Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, said the museum still relied on the state budget to get by despite reporting around 1.3 million visitors annually.

“We only charge entrance fees for foreigners, while granting free entrance to Vietnamese citizens,” Mai explained. “Our ticket revenue is minimal and mostly used to re-invest in the content of our displays.”

The Museum of Fine Arts in Ho Chi Minh City last year welcomed 54,000 visitors, making on average VND2 billion ($88,000) a year from ticket sales, according to its external affairs representative Nguyen Thi Thu Huong.

“Vietnam is becoming an increasingly popular destination for foreign tourists, so I think there needs to be a shift in the mindset of museum managers,” Huong said. “We ourselves have inked deals with local tour operators to bring more visitors to the museum.”

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