Written by Bo Haikun, Curator, The Palace Museum (China, ITP Fellow 2008)
The Hall of Martial Valor is located at the southwest of the Forbidden City. It includes a complex of buildings, covering more than 6,000 m2. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), it was used as an imperial publishing house. In 2017, the place was planned to be renovated as a New Ceramic Gallery.
Within two years, we did a lot of research and had many discussions to make an viable design concept: to reasonably make use of the old building rooms, to take visitors as guidance, to create new style ceramic exhibition with characteristics of the Forbidden City.
Plan of the Rooms
Our target was to make use of the old building rooms as much as possible. The H-shaped main building (1,600 m2) is planned to display the general history of Chinese ceramics from Neolithic Age to the Republic of China, totalling around 8,000 years. Besides, there would be a mini-exhibition room, which imitates the shape and decoration of imperial buildings, constructed at a prominent part of this main building to show temporary small-sized exhibitions of more professional or academic themes. 7 pieces of Emperor Qianlong’s (1736-1795) famille rose rotary flasks are chosen to be displayed here first.
The west and east side halls are to display 6 special subject exhibitions, like Imperial Wedding Porcelains Used by Late Qing Court. The Hall of Cultivating Virtue is to show export porcelains.
Furthermore, there are exhibitions of ceramic specimens from different kilns, bookstores, shops and washrooms in the area, consisting of a systematic integrated Ceramic Museum.
Our question is how to protect old buildings when we do constructions inside the rooms, which is a big difficulty. Firstly, in order not to disturb the old buildings too much, we paved steel structures as the base of the showcases or other heavy objects to disperse pressures, so that the floor tiles can avoid damage caused by the heavy weight. Secondly, any modern facilities including showcases are kept some distance from the old building windows, doors, walls and ceilings, instead of directly contacting them. Thirdly, air condition outlets are set below the showcase glass, so that it is not easy for the cold air to reach the ceilings thus forming water droplets during summer. Fourthly, the general gallery design matches the decoration style of the old buildings to make the modern facilities harmonious with the old fashions, which should be a unique nature of the Palace Museum Gallery.
Design of Showcases
We considered the height, width and length of the showcases carefully according to the room scale of the old buildings. Taking the main building as an example, its inner height is about 8 metres, so the height of the showcases is set to 3.65 metres, which make the showcases seem neither tall nor short, compared with the room height.
Showcases were installed along the old building walls, thus the inner space still seems broad and empty like the original. For safety and functionality, each corner of the showcases is chamfered. Then, the showcases look more elegant and beautiful, and visitors will not be hurt by sharp edge of the showcase corner.
We also designed 9 independent showcases to display important cultural relics, which consist of a brief history of Chinese ceramics. Among them, the big vase with various glazes made during Emperor Qianlong’s reign is a famous star known by Chinese people. It reflects the advanced ceramic technology of the past in China. So, the object is placed in the biggest independent showcase (H: 2.9 m, W: 1.2 m, L: 1.2 m), sitting in the prominent site in the gallery.
All showcases adopt low reflection glass. Metal boards of showcases are fluorocarbon sprayed with dark red, symbolizing the kiln flames which produce porcelains.
Design of Exhibition
The Ceramic Gallery shows more than 1,000 pieces of selected wonderful cultural relics collected by the Palace Museum, which owns more than 360,000 pieces of ancient ceramics.
As ceramics of different stages have different shapes as well as glazes, we use grey canvas to pack display tables and boards inside showcases, which can make different colors beautiful, harmonious, and elegant.
For each part of the exhibition, we set up a large unit panel to introduce information on ceramics of the time. In order to create an identity, we summarized the symbolic colours of ceramics in different eras to design decoration for panels. For example, dark-yellow corresponding to Neolithic potteries, grey-green for the celadon from the 2nd century to the 6th century, dark-blue for the porcelains during the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).
As to the exhibition of special subjects in the side halls, we designed interesting scenes to attract visitors and make people understand background knowledge more easily. The scene of banquet porcelains used by Qing court put a large picture of the inner view of the Palace of Heavenly Purity, in front of which are three large tables with porcelains, to create the atmosphere of an imperial banquet during some festivals.
The scene of imperial wedding porcelains of late Qing court copies the inner view of the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, which was used as a wedding house by imperial families. The scene of porcelains for imperial bestows display dozens of similar objects made during the different reigns of Qing emperors on a big three level stage. There are 10 emperors’ portraits hanging on the back wall surrounding exhibits to give visitors a feeling of etiquette. The scene of porcelains for celebrating longevity use real antique screens and furniture to reproduce a private room of Empress Dowager Cixi.
Generally speaking, the design and realisation of the New Ceramic Gallery is full of difficulties. Through 3 years of hard work, the gallery is finished and opened to the public on the 1st May, 2021, which we hope to be a successful Chinese porcelain gallery and attractive to numerous visitors around the world. Thanks to the ITP experience in 2008 and 2017, I have confidence to hold such an important project and enough knowledge and broad eyesight to overcome difficulties and accomplish the work.