Forbidden City transfigured

Using digital technology, museum officials are now trying to give visitors a glimpse of what they might be missing.

The 3D cave environment of Sanxi Hall in the Digital Gallery at Duanmen gate surrounds visitors with 270 degrees of screens and high-definition projections. — Wang Jin

THE 600-year-old Forbidden City in Beijing is called the Palace Museum because it really is a showcase of China’s cultural, historic and artistic past. Unfortunately, too many visitors rush from the entrance to the exit of the 72-hectare complex of imperial buildings without stopping to appreciate the treasures it holds.

Using digital technology, museum officials are now trying to give visitors a glimpse of what they might be missing.

At Duanmen gate, which used to be the main entrance to the Forbidden City, the museum opened the Digital Gallery at Gate of Correct Deportment last December. The gallery is located in the 118-meter long Duanmen Tower, which was once a reliquary related to sacrificial rituals. The gallery is entirely digital and divided into three parts: a grand hall, a cinema and an interactive zone.

The grand hall in the center showcases a panoramic view of the palace’s structure, its main exhibition halls and their contents, using a massive interactive LED floor.

The LED screen in front and on both sides of the floor recounts the history of the palace and traces its transformation to modern times. It also highlights some of the most famous exhibits.

The hall on the west serves as a small cinema where visitors can watch a virtual reality video entitled “The Forbidden City: The Palace for the Son of Heaven.” Five more videos are on tap to relate stories and the cultural history of some of the major buildings in the Forbidden City.

The eastern hall is devoted to interactive experiences. Here, visitors can try their calligraphy skills on a digital scroll of the famous masterpiece “Lantingji Xu,” rotate a digital vase on the large touch screen for a 360-degree view, don 3D glasses and sit at the emperor’s seat in his study, and even dress themselves in imperial robes on a digital screen and take photos of themselves.

Visitors can try out their calligraphy skills on a digital masterpiece. — Wang Jin

The gallery gives visitors a much closer and more personal look than they would find in standard exhibition halls, where all the exhibits are in glass cabinets. Every detail of artworks is incredibly clear.

“We want to give visitors an overview of the whole Palace Museum before they enter,” said Su Yi, deputy director of the Digital Information Department at the museum. “Duan can also mean kaiduan, or ‘beginning’ in Chinese, so the metaphor here works.”

Digitalization of the Palace Museum started in 1998. The first step was to take high-resolution photos of all the two-dimensional artworks in the palace, such as calligraphy, paintings and fabrics. Beginning in 2000, the Palace Museum embraced virtual reality, long before the concept took hold in the general public.

Su’s staff began by taking 3D photos and videos of the main buildings in the palace and exhibits in major halls. The whole process is not finished yet; the Palace Museum has more than 1.8 million antiques. But all calligraphy and paintings are in the digital database now.

Much of the digital content is also available on the official website of the Palace Museum.

“We have always been a storyteller,” said Su, “and we want to be more interactive with the visitors.”

Visitors can marvel at a selection of magnificent imperial treasures presented in three-dimensional tactile models. — Wang Jin

It took the team more than two years to choose the content and build the hardware and software for the Digital Gallery.

“We think of it as an exhibition hall in its own right,” Su explained. “The only difference is that this gallery doesn’t hold any physical artworks. But we curate the ‘exhibitions’ in just the same way.”

The first exhibition of the gallery aims to show the public just how big and important the Forbidden City is, not only as the former residence of emperors but also as a repository of Chinese history.

“We want visitors to do more than just taking photographs beside the wall and taking a quick look at the three major halls,” said Su.

All the digital content in the Duanmen Gallery is picked from the Palace Museum’s huge database. Exhibits are displayed in often inspired ways. For example, Su and her team turned the engraved painting “Bronze Vessel with Feasting, Fishing, Hunting and Fight Scenes” into animation.

The 3D room of Sanxi Hall in the east wing, which features projections on the walls, floor and ceiling, is built among four large pillars. The layout presented challenges for applying the technology. Eighteen super short-distanced projectors were installed to build up the room. Getting them to work in tandem was difficult. From time to time, the room needs to be closed to handle technical glitches.

The Duanmen Gallery is not the only place in the Palace Museum where efforts to adopt modern, technical innovations are deployed.

A large curved projection screen in the virtual reality cinema — Wang Jin

In 2013, the Palace Museum launched its first iPad app, called “Twelve Beauties,” in the Apple App Store.

It provides a glimpse of imperial life through a set of screen paintings, with high-resolution interactive full-screen images. The app was surprisingly popular, making the charts of top downloads.

Encouraged by the response, the Palace Museum developed eight further apps with different themes.

They include “The Night Revels of Han Xizai” and “The Qing Emperors’ wardrobe.”

“The museum has two major functions,” Su explained.

“One is protection; the other is exhibition. Using modern technology, we can record the antiques. Using interactive digital technology, we whet public interest in them.”


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