THE Forbidden City in Beijing, home of 24 emperors over 500 years, isn’t quite as forbidding as it once was, but it never fails to awe the hundreds of thousands of Chinese and foreign visitors who enter its gates every year.
Opened as the Palace Museum in 1925, the 72-hectare site and keeper of the nation’s cultural treasures has been undergoing a bit of modernization in recent years, embracing new technologies to tell old stories and improving services to the public.
During a recent visit to Shanghai, Shan Jixiang, chief curator of the museum, shared some insights into the changes that have preserved the old while catering to a new age.
Shan was appointed to the post in January 2012, after the Palace Museum suffered a series of notorious scandals. Precious exhibits had been stolen or destroyed. Misinformation was sent to police charged with finding missing relics. Housing within the complex were rented out to private clubs for the wealthy.
Shan has made valiant strides in restoring the integrity of the Palace Museum.
“It is crowned with many distinctions, such as the preservation of the most complete ancient architectural complex and the largest repository of cultural relics,” he says. “Are these honors important? Yes, but they are not the most important. The most important is what cultural resources mean to people.”
Shan says the public aspect really defines the museum.
“If 70 percent of the museum area and 99 percent of its collections are not open to the public, or if 80 percent of visitors just walk through the palace without looking at the cultural relics and exhibits carefully, then it’s not a successful museum,” he says.
Shan quotes President Xi Jinping in noting that all the historical collections should evoke passions in the 21st century.
“Our aim is to tease out the resources we have and present them to the public in innovative ways,” he says.
Soon after Shan took the office, he canvassed every corner of the museum with an assistant. Some 9,371 features of ancient architectures — check! Some 1.8 million ancient treasures and relics — check!
“The collections include not only valuable jade, porcelain, paintings and inscriptions, but also some of the toys emperors played with as children,” says Shan. “There are also antiques from Western countries — items given to emperors as gifts.”
Shan and his colleagues spent three years renovating the environment. Compounds and rooms were cleaned out, and damaged features were repaired or restored. Cultural relics stored in boxes, which occupied more than 200 rooms, were removed for public exhibition.
Temporary structures, including a canteen, offices, garage and restrooms for museum staff, were removed. Almost half of the museum’s 1,500 staff, including Shan himself, have moved their offices outside the Palace Museum, giving the interior space a more authentic look.
The efforts have opened up areas to the public previously unseen, including the garden of the Hall of Benevolent Peace, where mothers of emperors lived.
Five years ago, only 30 percent of the Palace Museum was open to the public. That increased to 70 percent last year and is set to reach 85 percent by 2025.
Shan says improved services in the imperial grounds aim to reduce frustrations that many visitors encountered, including long queues at the ticket booth and excess crowds at the most popular venues.
The changes start at the square in front of the Palace Museum.
“It used to be like a commodity fair, with many houses rented out to merchants and low-class exhibitors,” says Shan. “We took back the houses and cleaned up the square, allowing us to open 32 ticket windows so that visitors wouldn’t have to stand in line for more than 15 minutes at peak visiting times.”
Visitor volumes are limited to 80,000 a day, compared with past peak numbers of more than 180,000. Daily average numbers are now 48,000 in the slow season and 54,800 on busy days.
Palace Museum tickets are priced at 40 yuan (US$6) in the off-season and 60 yuan during peak season. Students and the elderly get a half-price discount.
“The prices are very cheap when compared to other tourist venues,” Shan says. “But we have no plans to raise them and deter some visitors.”
A new service center has been set up to provide tourists just arriving with information, free maps, mobile phone recharging and drinking water. More public restrooms have been provided.
Shan says all the rejuvenation efforts have been careful to avoid gimmickry and commercialization. A Starbucks outlet was ousted from the imperial grounds years ago after public outcry.
Frequent visitors might note changes at the Meridian Gate entrance. Previously, the middle gates were reserved for entry by distinguished guests only, while ordinary visitors had to enter through two side entrances.
“An old man from northeastern China once asked for permission to walk through the middle gate because he was on his first and probably only trip to the Palace Museum and he wanted to retrace the steps of emperors,” Shan recalls. “Now we open all the three doors to the public, and they can choose to be emperors if they wish.”
Distinguished guests are no longer allowed to drive cars into the area. When former French President François Hollande and former Indian Prime Minster Manmohan Singh visited Beijing in 2013, both had to disembark from their official cars at the front gate and walk into the museum.
Security checkpoints at gates were increased to 18 from two so that visitors aren’t held up for long periods of time.
Visitors who used to enter the museum in a bit of a daze, not knowing quite where to start their tours, now are greeted by 495 signboards that clearly point out what is where.
The Forbidden City is so large that visitors often tire easily. Previously, people sat on steps or under trees to catch their breath and rest their legs. Now, 1,400 wooden chairs have been installed, and circular benches gird 56 trees.
The era of emperors existed before electrification, but even in the 20th century when their reigns were long past, no electric bulbs were installed for fear of timber structures catching fire. That made viewing interior rooms and halls at the Palace Museum a dark experience indeed.
“That should not happen in a museum,” Shan says. “We spent three years researching remedies and finally decided to install LED lamps with cold light sources. The interiors were lit for the first time.”
Technologies such as virtual reality are giving visitors a whole new way of viewing China’s history and culture. For example, they can “wear” imperial clothes.
Two years ago, to mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of the museum, the famous ancient Chinese painting “Along the River During the Qingming Festival” was put on public display. Everyone wanted to see it and rushed to the spot upon entering the imperial grounds.
One 70-year-old man complained that he had gotten up early to buy a ticket to see the painting but was almost knocked to the ground by younger visitors running past him.
“He said the museum was like a sports venue,” says Shan. “It inspired me to introduce a unique way of entrance. I asked our employees to guide visitors in groups to the viewing site to keep order and give everyone an equal chance to enjoy it.”
There were so many visitors during the anniversary celebration that the museum stayed open most of the night. When Shan mingled among visitors around 8pm one night, some were complaining that there was no water sold at that hour.
“So we boiled up water and provided 2,500 cups of tea for them,” he says.
When he returned at midnight to see how things were going, some of the visitors said they were hungry but no food was available. So Shan directed staff to prepare instant noodles for the 800-plus visitors still in the museum.
“I guess we must be the only museum in the world to provide free instant noodles for visitors,” Shan says with a laugh.
When the final visitors left at around 4am, new visitors were already queuing up at the entrance.
The Palace Museum has developed a sophisticated website and social media accounts, allowing people around the world to pay digital visits and keep abreast of exhibits. Children can play virtual games to experience a day in the life of an emperor.
The museum sells quality souvenirs, like notebooks with portraits of emperors and mobile phone cases featuring imperial elements. Indeed, its offering or more than 9,000 creative cultural products brought in 1 billion yuan last year.
A three-episode documentary called “Masters in Forbidden City,” which showed how craftsmen repair cultural relics in the museum, became an online sensation.
“I was overjoyed that young people love it,” says Shan. “It’s a bit slow-paced, so I thought it would appeal only to older people.”
Visitors to the museum can make reservations to the site where relics are restored.
“We treat cultural relics as a doctor would treat his patients,” says Shan. “We examine the articles with special equipment, such as CT scanners and microscopes, to determine the best repair plan.”
The museum director says he likes to think of himself as the doorman of the Palace Museum.
“The Palace Museum will turn 600 years old in three years,” he says. “I want to feel that we have been worthy stewards of its treasures in handing them over to the next 600 years.”