The Terracotta Warriors (3 cents)

What makes a good museum show?

1. A subject matter which is of interest, or which should be of interest, to a significant number of people.
2. The high quality of the pieces being displayed.
3. The selection and variety of pieces displayed.
4. A comfortable, well lit presentation space.
5. Good signage which is clear, easy to read, tracks the pieces being shown, and tells a good story.

If I am right about these five components of a good show, you could not find one better than the Terracotta Warrior exhibit which is (unfortunately) soon to close at the National Geographic headquarters in Washington.

The background: Somewhat over 2000 years ago, a number of warring feudal kingdoms in central China were wielded into the first large Chinese Empire under the Qin (pronounced Chin) Dynasty and the First Emperor Shihuangdi.

But neither the First Emperor nor the Qin dynasty lasted very long, as Shihuangdi, still a relatively young man of 50, died, perhaps of accidental mercury poisoning.

As awesome (in good and bad ways) as Shihuangdi was in life, he was more so in death, as his tomb, which lay undiscovered until the 1970s, has shown that he was buried in an extraordinary manner, with terracotta models of his army and their animals, his court officials and his court musicians and acrobats, as well as coins and articles used at court were, first, created and, second, buried with him.

Not simply a few of these life size models to keep him company, but an estimated 7,000, of which only about 1,000 have so far been excavated.

Not very many have been transported to Washington for this exhibition, but those that have (and I didn’t count them; perhaps there were a dozen) show the effort and the talent that went into their making. Not only life size (actually a little larger than life), but life like, which each body, each posture, and each face distinct.

The National Geographic space is not enormous, although it was expanded for this special presentation, but the display rooms were made very large to handle large crowds and allow a maximum of freedom of movement, and the items selected to be shown along with the statuary models were limited in number, and placed so as to permit viewers to see them as distinct pieces.

Yet none of this would have worked as well without the terrific signage which told the story of the Xi’an tomb, and the Qin dynasty with just the right amount of detail, in a way that virtually anyone who can read English could follow the story. This in and of itself is a rare achievement.

The crowds have been very large. No tickets are available for the remainder of the exhibit. But if you saw it, you had quite a treat and if you didn’t, I’d suggest going to the National Geographic website and looking at the relevant material there, constructed with equal care.


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