Cultural surfing boom

By Wang Dabao (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-07-12 09:30
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Cultural surfing boom

The visitors' entrance to the Palace Museum in Beijing. Xie Zhengyi / For China Daily

Virtual tours of the Forbidden City's historical attractions prove popular

BEIJING - China has a tremendous stock of historic relics and artifacts from its long history. During the past few years, many museums have started to use technology to make them more appealing to today's visitors.

Among these pioneers, China's Palace Museum is one of the most successful.

Since it launched the Virtual Forbidden City online travel community and the Beyond Time and Space project in 2008, the museum has attracted more than 300,000 registered visitors in the virtual world. The numbers of those who participated in the project online are even higher.

"The project gave visitors richer and easier access to the imperial city and the ancient building complex with as many as 8,707 rooms and 1.5 million articles on art," said Hu Chui, head of the museum's information department, who is leading a team of 60 to boost the museum's digital presence.

The Forbidden City is the world's largest surviving imperial palace complex and served as the home of the emperor and his household. It was also the ceremonial and political center of the Chinese government from 1420 to the early 20th century.

It was listed as a World Heritage Site in 1987 by UNESCO and contains the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world.

Despite having more than eight million visitors annually, many people are largely ignorant of its architecture and antique collections. They are often likely to go to the palace only to boast that they have been in the emperor's bedroom.

"That's why we are committed to digital technology. It could make learning more attractive," said Hu.

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Beyond Time and Space was established with the help of IBM. The US technology giant spent more than three years working with Chinese officials and the Palace Museum staff to construct an interactive, animated replica of the 178-acre (720,000 square-meter) walled fortress in the Dongcheng district of Beijing.

Visitors to the virtual Forbidden City can explore it as animated characters, or avatars, and can chat with others or take part in activities such as archery, cricket fighting or a board game called Weiqi.

Animated tourists can also scrutinize artifacts and scenes including The Emperor Having Dinner. Virtual tours can be narrowed to topics such as dragons, halls, symbolic animals, or the expansive Imperial Garden.

Fans of culture thousands of miles from Beijing can also visit the Forbidden City through the three dimensional recreation of the vast palace, where they can dress up as an imperial eunuch and meet a courtesan.

"The interconnectedness of architecture and history at the Palace Museum creates a unique sense of culture that has no equal. It is this unique spatial experience of Chinese culture that Beyond Space and Time seeks to bring to the world," said Henry Chow, general manager, IBM Greater China Group."

According to Chow, IBM has used the latest technology to tell the stories of Chinese culture through artifacts, people and places to create the virtual experience.

"The Forbidden City: Beyond Space and Time is a program that combines China's world-class cultural heritage with state-of-the-art information technology," said Palace Museum director-general Zheng Xinmiao.

Online tourists can also watch the Qing dynasty emperor feast at dinner, train fighting crickets and feed them with blood-fattened mosquitoes, or practice archery with the help of a courtesan.

"When you enter the Forbidden City you choose one of nine historical costumes, which is to give a sense of history but also keep a sense of decorum," said John Tolva, program manager at IBM, who led the project.

"You can't run and you can't fly," he added, a restriction that aims to prevent other virtual visitors, whom you can see and interact with, being distracted.

Encouraged by the program with IBM, the Palace Museum last year also made a major update of its website that was restructured to meet the different demands of laymen, researchers and academics.

The site includes quiz games suitable for children that teach basic knowledge about ancient China. The museum has created a cartoon figure as its image ambassador, a young emperor clad in a bright yellow royal robe adapted from Emperor Kangxi, one of the most famous emperors of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Older visitors can also see tens of thousands of pictures of high-resolution quality with explanatory introductions. Researchers can have access to the museum's academic findings in a database.

"Technology can help people around the world understand the rich culture of China, our history and our people," said Zheng.

He said the Palace Museum planned to use more technology to bring China's rich culture heritage to more people in the future.