Step into history via VR at Beijing's Palace Museum

BEIJING • 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 its curator, Dr 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 antiques.

"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 the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) housed his most treasured calligraphy," Dr Shan said.


A lot of the palace is not accessible to the public, but through VR, nowhere is off-limits, even the Hall of Three Rarities...


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 was immensely popular during the Chinese New Year holiday. Giant LED screens were set up in a square inside the complex and showed nine antiques from nine different museums across China.

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

In March last year, 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 viewed more than five million times on a popular streaming site.

Digitalisation of the museum started 20 years ago, when it established a centre for information electronisation.

Starting in 2001, the museum opened websites in Chinese and English, as well as a youth version.

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

In February 2015, the museum launched an app to showcase its impressive 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 more than 500,000 downloads last year, Dr Shan said.

This year, the museum released a mini programme on WeChat, China's largest social media platform.

Through GPS and real-time 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 the splendid traditional culture it embodies and represents, said Dr Shan.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 24, 2018, with the headline 'Step into history via VR at Beijing's Palace Museum'. Print Edition | Subscribe