With 600 years of history, the Forbidden City has millions of pieces in its historical and artistic collections, many of which have suffered different levels of damage. The relics in the collections can live longer and be displayed in the Palace Museum only with strict check-ups, repairs, and conservation – and that is what the cultural relic hospital and its “doctors” do.
Hospital for Relics in Forbidden City
There are more than 1,860,000 cultural relics in the Forbidden City, but only less than 1% are exhibited. Most of the rest are shabby, ailing, and stored in the storehouse. The only way to bring them to light again is to revitalize them and prolong their use - which was the purpose of building a hospital for relics in the museum.
Located on the west side of the museum, the Forbidden City Hospital for Cultural Relics, evolved from the relic conservation department of the Palace Museum, established in the 1950s. The “Hospital” was established on December 29, 2016, and covers 13,000 square meters. With the world’s most-advanced equipment and over 160 of China’s best restorers, the hospital is a great combination of tradition and technology.
Cultural Relic Doctors - Traditional Techniques
Just like people need regular physical check-ups, cultural relics need to see “doctors” to maintain appearance and prolong their existence. Relic restorers are the doctors.
The relic doctors in the Palace Museum are trained through apprenticeships by dozens of restorers devoting their whole careers to traditional hands-on restoration work within the museum. Before their retirement, they train their apprentices to be the new generation for the relic restoration work. In this way, the traditional techniques of relic restoration can be inherited through successive generations.
However, doctors are shorthanded compared with 1.86 million culture relics collected in this world’s largest museum. It needs several generations’ efforts to accomplish this massive relic restoration.
In order to meet the urgent demand for hospitals and doctors that are excel in protecting and repairing culture relics, in March 2019, Song Jirong, the director of the relic hospital of the museum, said the Palace Museum would cooperate with higher education institutes and build the first culture relic medical school in China.
Hi-Tech Labs - Modern Assistance
Although traditional techniques and years of experience are keys to the restoration work, doctors still need the help of modern hi-tech equipment, including: X-ray CT machines, microscopes, hyperspectral scanning, 3D printing and even Google Glass, to analyze, detect, or replicate the broken parts of relics.
For example, an X-ray CT machine can display the inner details of relics without damaging their structural integrity, while 3D printing can be used to replicate the missing areas of ancient bronzes.
What Can Be Restored
Divided by the category of collections, the hospital houses 21 analysis and detection labs and 16 repairing rooms, making it a cradle for the rebirth of various cultural relics. From furniture, to bronzes, lacquers, textiles, timepieces, instruments, inlay works, enamels, metalwork, jades, jewelries, ancient calligraphy, paintings, and more, almost every collection in the Palace Museum can be restored.
Example 1: Timepieces
Most of the collections in the Gallery of Clocks were gifts to the emperors, presented by Western missionaries. None of the clocks exhibited there are working, but they are actually repaired and can work after being winded.
For instance, there’s a copper-plated music box, which measures 1.22 meters in height with 200 years of history. The clock had issues rotating due to a broken gear. Repairing it could only be done through a highly complicated or minimally invasive procedure, involving 54 water clocks, 28 miniatures, 4 sets of music system and thousands of parts. After several months of hard-working restoration, the clock turned as it originally had.
Example 2: Imperial Lanterns
In March 2018, the Palace Museum decided to hold a special exhibition around the Spring Festival of 2019 and wanted to display the Sky Lantern and the Longevity Lamp to highlight New Year culture in the imperial city. In facts, these two types of lanterns have disappeared for nearly 200 years. It took "doctors" 9 months to restore a pair of Sky Lanterns, a pair of Longevity Lamps and five pairs of other imperial lanterns, based on the research results of archived files and collections.
These seven pairs of lanterns were auctioned off for charity on the evening of April 2, 2019, the end day of the exhibition “Happy New Year in the Forbidden City”. The proceeds from the auction, amounted to RMB 20,050,000, were all donated to students in poor schools.
Can We See the “Doctors” at Work?
The relic hospital was first opened to the public on June 9, 2018. The visitors were limited to 40 people and can only be reserved through the Palace Museum’s online ticket-booking system. Considering the impact on doctors' work and the safety of cultural relics, there is still a long way to go before the Palace Museum Relic Hospital is truly open to the public.
However, if you are really interested to see the relic doctors at work, you can try to watch a three-episode documentary Masters In the Forbidden City (available in Chinese only), presenting the restoration of relics and the life of their “doctors”.
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Visiting the Forbidden City
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