When I heard, back in May 2009, that an agreement on an exchange of exhibitions had been reached with the Palace Museum in Beijing I was both excited and apprehensive. There were good reasons to be excited – the Palace Museum is the custodian of all the things that once belonged to emperors and their immediate families. Everything in its collection is of ‘imperial’ quality. No artefacts used by commoners or low-ranking state officials would ever enter its storehouse. To a curator of Chinese art there is no better place to learn about court life and imperial taste.
Birds eye view of the Palace Museum
I still remember my first ‘official’ visit to the Palace Museum, not as a tourist (that I had done many times previously) but as a curator from the V&A. That was in the winter of 1995. I had an appointment with the then Deputy Director, Mr Yang Boda. I was to phone him when I arrived at the North Gate at 9.30 in the morning. The taxi driver, however, made a mistake and took me to the South Gate instead. By the time I realized I was at the wrong gate I had no option but to walk through the huge complex. It took me 25 minutes to go from the south end to the north end.
The site on which the Palace Museum stands today was, before 1912, known as the ‘Forbidden City’, so called because it was forbidden to all but the imperial family, the nobility and the highest echelons of government officials. Its layout takes the shape of a rectangular, 961 metres long and 753 metres wide, and is surrounded by a moat. On this ground of 720,000 square metres there are about 8,700 buildings. It was built by Emperor Yongle (reigned 1403-1424), the third emperor of the Ming dynasty. Construction started in 1406 and took six years to complete. When the Manchu toppled the Ming dynasty in 1644 and became rulers of China they inherited the Forbidden City, where they lived until dynastic rule came to an end in 1911.
Dr Sun Yat-sen established the Chinese Republic in 1912. But the last emperor Puyi, then a boy of six, was allowed to continue living in the Palace. He was finally forced to move out in 1924. On 10th October 1925, which was Chinese National Day, a grand ceremony took place in front of the Palace of Heavenly Purity to mark the inception of the Palace Museum.
Between 1420 and 1911, for a span of nearly 500 years, 24 emperors lived and worked in the Forbidden City. Treasures and rarities were acquired during one reign period and handed down to the next. When an emperor died his personal belongings were not discarded but carefully stored away. When the Forbidden City became the Palace Museum its first contingent of staff had no idea how many objects were scattered in the numerous stores. Nor did they foresee it would take seven to eight decades and four generations of curators to complete the stock-taking.