A prominent museum in Philadelphia, The Franklin Institute, “is one of the oldest and premier centers of science education and development in the country”. That makes sense – Franklin himself was a more than just a thinker. He was a curious tinkerer and creative problem solver. So I was intrigued when I heard that several of the Terracotta Warriors from China would be on exhibit there because, to me, they seem more like a subject of history. Perhaps I’m biased, being a history nerd and all that.
This was a traveling exhibit, spending the first six months of its life at the Pacific Science Center (PSC) in Seattle, Washington, before spending the last six months of its life at the Franklin. Knowing that, it was interesting to see how the pieces of the exhibit fit into the space. I would have liked to go visit it at the PSC just to see the layout choices between two very different floor plans.
Anyway, back to the Terracotta Warriors themselves …
In 1974, some Chinese workers were digging a well and struck something in the ground. The thing struck turned out to be a life sized terracotta figure. A little more digging unearthed many more figures. In fact, there are at least four massive pits, over 8,000 figures, each one unique in stance and feature.
All 8,000 figures (by a rough estimate) are part of the burial complex of Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China, who died way back in 210 BC. During his reign, he unified the different warring regions of China, standardized areas of infrastructure, and took the title “Emperor,” which was a departure from his predecessors’ title of “King.” His successors followed his lead and also titled themselves Emperor. The link above goes to his dedicated Wikipedia page, and his reign looks very dramatic, full of political intrigue and assassination attempts. If you’re into that kind of thing, I would definitely check it out.
Like many very powerful figures, he was afraid of death. I think he took a daily dose of mercury because of its alleged powers of immortality. Little did he know he was probably shortening his life instead of prolonging it. One way he ensured his legacy would continue was by erecting a massive necropolis to house him after he had died. And a large portion of that necropolis was filled with these life-sized figures to both protect him and entertain him in the afterlife.
This was just a very, very basic summary of the First Emperor of China and his tomb complex. For more information and a map, check out the Smithsonian Magazine link here.
So to the exhibit itself at the Franklin – there were ten actual figurines and many replicas. The actual artifacts were pretty interesting to see. They’re pretty large and look very solid. Also cool was a chariot with horse figurines on display. For the Emperor had not only soldiers guarding him, but there were entertainment figures – acrobats, musicians – and chariots for transportation, with horses to pull the chariots. And all the figures had, at one point, been equipped with the tools of their trade – weapons, musical instruments, writing tablets.
The exhibit also explained a little more why it was at a museum dedicated to science-y type things. Emperor Qin did things like standardize measurements throughout his kingdom, standardize currency, and even created a mass-production system in order to create all nearly 8,000 figures at an efficient rate. In fact, in conjunction with the figures, artifacts, and replicas, there was an additional Alternate Reality component, where you could download an app on your phone and it would show additional layers of history and context if you held your phone up to one of the figures. That was an interesting concept, especially from the perspective of adding another layer to museum exhibit experiences.
Anyway, the exhibit spent some time talking about the innovations put in place by the Emperor. There were interactive areas dedicated to these different areas of reform – at one, two different people had to estimate “fabric” lengths for standardized production of textile goods. At another, there was a place to experiment with mass production. At a third, there were small plastic parts that you could then assemble into small warriors – arms, bodies, legs, heads. At yet a fourth, there were small plastic fragments that you then reassembled into a whole piece to mimic the archaeologist’s task of taking all the unearthed terracotta fragments and reassembling them into the full sized figures.
All of these interactive portions were definitely educational. We – modern day people with things like standardization and mass production – take those things for granted (unless you’re converting from the imperial system to the metric system, and even then, there are standards). So then thinking about a time where these concepts hadn’t been implemented was certainly interesting. There was certainly an increase in productivity and efficiency, which probably led to an increase in things like the arts and expansion of culture.
There were two major scenic areas that were intended to recreate areas of the tomb. The first one was a replica dig site, full of replica figures. Archaeologists have discovered traces of pigment on the terracotta, so these figures were in various stages of paint and deterioration. There were rafters across the top and scenic dirt on the walls, and it kind of felt like a real dig site, or what I would imagine a real dig site to feel like. At the back, there was a figure with an animated mask showing the painting/decaying process on loop. That was pretty cool. Much like classical Greek art, we don’t usually think of them as having once been vibrantly painted. To see a video of it, go here. (Also, because I’m a huge nerd, here’s a video of the process of creating that animation.) (Also, because I’m an even huge-r nerd, National Geographic has a whole article about the possibilities of Greek influence on the making and painting of the figures, several hundred years before we think the West met the East.)
The second major scenic area was the recreated tomb area. In China, the actual tomb area has not yet been excavated. It is still sealed and archaeologists are afraid of what might happen once it has been opened. There are legends that the emperor’s coffin is floating on a river of mercury (for its alleged powers of immortality) in amounts that would probably be toxic at this point. There are also fears that once air is let into the chamber, things would decay instantly upon contact. #archaeologistproblems. So the Franklin’s interpretation of the tomb area was kind of interesting. I liked how the lighting sort of recreated the alleged lake of mercury. (Remember kids, lighting makes or breaks an exhibit…)
From the layout perspective, this exhibit could have been a little more exciting, but since it was designed to fit two totally different areas, I think the Franklin has more floor space so there wasn’t quite enough exhibit to fill it all. This exhibit made me think a lot about designing for two different spaces and how the parts were organized. I thought the exhibit highlights were the Alternate Reality component, the interactive portions, and the scenic tomb recreations. (Also the graphic design was on point.) I also liked how the interactive portions helped emphasize the science-y and innovation-y aspects of Emperor Qin’s reign. But I probably learned more about the Emperor’s reign while doing research for this post, and all the excitement for the components in this exhibit was not totally proportional to the excitement for the sum of all the components.
Don’t get me wrong – I did enjoy it but I think I was expecting my socks to get knocked off, and my socks remained firmly on my feetsies. But then, perhaps I should also not expect history at a science exhibit…
However – the intro video is pretty good so you should have a look: