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Relics Come Alive
Museums embrace modern technology to help visitors access China's national treasures
By Li Fangfang | NO.8-9 FEBRUARY 22, 2018

A visitor admires an artifact from the Palace Museum at an exhibition featuring the Qing Dynasty at the Nanjing Museum in east China's Jiangsu Province on December 21, 2017 (XINHUA)

Born in England, 25-year-old Laurence Coulton has always taken a keen interest in the cultures of the world. However, it was at university that he realized he knew almost nothing about China.

"For someone from England, China is very exotic, all the traditions, beliefs and customs are totally different," Coulton said. "We don't grow up with any knowledge of these things." Curious to find out more, he decided to move to China after graduating in 2013.

Coulton believes that because the Chinese civilization enjoys such a long history, it is the ancient and sophisticated aspects of the culture together with their complex origins which make them so seductively esoteric.

"This, I think, makes China's culture really exciting to learn about and experience first-hand," he said.

Coulton has spent as much time as he can during the past five years visiting China's museums in his quest for a deeper understanding of the culture. These visits have taken him to national and provincial museums in Beijing as well as those in Henan, Shaanxi and Hubei provinces.

However, one lowlight for him was his first visit to the famous Palace Museum in 2015.

Of China's 4,870 museums (as of 2017), the Palace Museum, based in the Forbidden City in Beijing, is the biggest with over 1.8 million exhibits. Many of these account for more than 40 percent of China's rare and precious cultural relics.

Coulton was unhappy with the entrance fee and found the information provided for the collections uninspiring and dull.

"I would personally prefer to learn about the history through events and anecdotes, as these can truly bring the past to life," Coulton told Beijing Review.

He has been to the British Museum countless times and said not only do they offer good service but the entrance is free to see prized artifacts from practically every great civilization in world history.

Modernizing history

Coulton's feelings toward the Palace Museum were echoed by Chinese visitors back in 2015.

But today, the situation is vastly different. Events at the museum often go viral and have recently become extremely popular among young Chinese due to the local reality show National Treasures.

The curators from the Palace Museum and the other eight representative museums around China, each present three national treasures on the show, which are introduced by celebrities via short stage dramas.

Yu Lei, director of the show, explained how the items were chosen. "Our standard is not to choose the most precious items. We want the ones with the most attractive


While gaining experience in London in 2015 on how to shoot the program, Yu found museums there were part of people's daily life.

"People have classes or dates at the museum," Yu told China Economic Weekly. "We Chinese people also know relics are important and worth learning about, but many people don't know how to appreciate them."

The Palace Museum appears in the first episode of the show. Its three treasures are A Panorama of Rivers and Mountains, a well-known Chinese painting, a porcelain vase made in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and commonly called the "mother of porcelains," and a shigu stone carved with characters that portray history before Emperor Qinshihuang (259-210 B.C.) unified China.

Using comedy and the contemporary language favored by the youth to deliver history lessons, the show corrects misperceptions about Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) in the Qing Dynasty and uses the vase as an example of inclusiveness.

In an audience survey, Yu found that young people born after 1990 are keen to learn something from TV programs.

Coulton, who speaks Chinese, watches the show and describes the segment on A Panorama of Rivers and Mountains as his favorite.

Luo Jing, Director of Museums at the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, said the show is an example of cooperation between the state media and protectors of cultural relics.

"Such a cultural feast can help nurture the public's consciousness and better promote our traditions," he said.

Yan Jingming, Vice Chairman of the China Writers Association, echoed these sentiments, explaining how cultural relics are given unique characteristics in the stories, which is a way to revitalize cultural heritage and open a dialogue between the past and present.

Superior souvenirs

Besides TV shows and documentaries, the Palace Museum has improved the range of gifts and souvenirs available, which better present the modern image it wants to portray. Visitors can buy the items both at the museum and online.

The souvenirs are not only appealing to domestic visitors, but also to those from abroad.

Pamela Tobey, in her 50s, is a former senior visual reporter at The Washington Post. During her three-year stay in Beijing, she has been to the Palace Museum at least 10 times.

In terms of gift designs, she compares the Palace Museum with some of the world's top museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and Musée du Louvre in Paris.

She finds that the Metropolitan is more classic in its offerings with scarves, bags, jewelry and books, while the Louvre has a larger selection of items in the gift shops.

"The gift shops in the Palace Museum win the day with a wider selection of different kinds of souvenirs from the cute and funny to the more conventional items like fans and other beautifully crafted items," she said.

Interesting items for her include backpacks resembling the Forbidden City's famous big red doors and chopstick sets decorated with palace figures.

"The Palace Museum gift shops feature more innovative objects amidst more traditional items that catch the eye," Tobey told Beijing Review.

Having started to gain a more favorable image among visitors in recent years, the Palace Museum continues to open new sections featuring artifacts never before seen by the public.

Due to increasing visitor numbers which make queuing for tickets inconvenient, the Palace Museum launched the sale of online tickets in October 2017.

"We had over 16 million visitors in 2017, but you won't see long lines of people queuing for tickets anymore," said Shan Jixiang, Curator of the Palace Museum.

The museum also announced plans on January 22 to establish a modern museum of cultural relics in Dongcheng District in Beijing, to unveil the mystery of precious items for the public without needing to enter the Forbidden City itself.

"There are a massive number of modern cultural relics stored in the Forbidden City, with paintings and calligraphy works totaling more than 6,000. However, there is not enough room for them to exhibit now," said Shan.

To further increase visibility, the Palace Museum is cooperating with Chinese Internet giant Tencent to digitalize each exhibition held within the Forbidden City. This will make it possible for users to see a high-definition version of A Panorama of Rivers and Mountains without downloading the picture, via artificial intelligence recognition technology.

Shan said that with the support of science and technology, more people can gain access to cultural relics.

"What touches me is that it's common in the Forbidden City to see young people so interested in traditional culture," said Shan. "They come to see a specific exhibition up to eight times. We should produce more films and television works to make these popular traditional artistic works come alive in modern times."

Copyedited by Francisco Little

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