China's Palace Museum goes digital, offering access to previously forbidden chambers

The imperial palace, also known as the Palace Museum, is expanding its appeal to the smartphone generation.
The imperial palace, also known as the Palace Museum, is expanding its appeal to the smartphone generation.PHOTO: CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

BEIJING (XINHUA) - The Forbidden City in Beijing is shaping a new image for itself after almost six centuries.

The imperial palace, also known as the Palace Museum, is expanding its appeal to the smartphone generation.

"I believe we are the best digital museum in the world," said museum curator Shan Jixiang at a press conference earlier this month.

Dr Shan was referring to a digital exhibition which opened last October atop Duanmen Gate, the main entrance to the palace grounds.

Visitors may walk directly into the emperor's residence and, through virtual reality (VR), see everything as it was in its heyday, even to the extent of being able to talk with a senior minister with the help of artificial intelligence.

The Palace Museum houses close to 1.9 million antique items.

"A lot of the palace is not accessible to the public, but through VR, nowhere is off-limits, even the Hall of Three Rarities, a 4.8 sq m chamber where Emperor Qianlong of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) housed his most treasured calligraphy," Dr Shan said.

The digital gallery at Duanmen opened in 2015, displaying items that are too old and fragile for real display, said Dr Shan.

The "National Treasure" exhibition in February, the first in 2018, was immensely popular during the Chinese New Year holiday. Giant LED screens were set up in a square inside the complex, showing nine antiques from nine different museums across the country.

The exhibition was in conjunction with a China Central TV weekly show, also named "National Treasure", which was well received among viewers.

In March 2017, the museum released a documentary, "New Diary of the Forbidden City", about the restoration of the Hall of Mental Cultivation. The first two episodes have been seen more than five million times on a popular streaming site.

"These documentaries help us understand and feel history," a viewer commented.

Digitalisation of the museum started 20 years ago, when it established a centre for information electronisation. Starting 2001, the museum opened websites in Chinese and English, as well as a youth version.

The Palace Museum also announced it would digitalise its entire collection and make the images available to the public. The museum photographs each item from different angles and uploads them online, said Dr Shan.

In February 2015, the museum launched an app to showcase its collection. The app highlights one item from the collection every day.

Nine apps have been released so far. One of them, named "Exhibitions at the Palace Museum", provides panoramic views of exhibition halls as well as detailed information of items on display. It gained over 500,000 downloads in 2017, Dr Shan said.

This year, the museum released a mini programme on WeChat, China's largest social media platform. Through GPS and realtime visitor statistics, the programme advises visitors on the best route through the museum on a delicate "hand-painted" map.

Via the Internet, innovation and new technologies, the museum shares with the younger generation splendid traditional culture it embodies and represents, said Dr Shan.