It was a busy first day for the new show at The British Museum, The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army. It’s getting a lot of publicity, and there seems to be the expectation of a lot of interest, so I booked my ticket a few weeks ago to avoid the queues.
And I think it was just as well I did. As is usual for popular shows in the larger London galleries and museums, the BM are operating a timed entry system and my ticket was for 10.10am, very early, ten minutes after the doors to the exhibition had opened. When I got there there was already a small queue, but by the time I left it was beginning to snake its way round the Reading Room in the Great Court – and bear in mind that this is only the visible end of the queue, once inside the Reading Room there is a fairly long series of chicanes to manage visitor flow.
While I was standing waiting to go in, a woman came over and presented herself as a reporter for The London Paper and could she ask a few questions? Of course, I said. She was interested in why I came so early—one of the first visitors—how had I got my ticket and how far in advance. She was also interested in my reasons for visiting, what was it about the show that convinced me to book ahead and get in early. Once she had my answers she took a portrait shot of me with her mobile phone and joined her colleague at one of the tables where they were working on a laptop, presumably sending the interviews and photos to the paper.
Well, I was very interested in seeing this show because only a few months previously I had been standing in the great aircraft hangers housing the excavated pits from which these Terracotta warriors originally came from. My fiancée couldn’t understand why I would want to go to see them again, but a different context makes for a completely different experience, in my opinion. A show in England will create a different impression from that in China. And therein one can learn a lot about museum display techniques, cultural perceptions of artefacts, a country’s relation to their history (China’s) and to the history of another country (England to China’s).
Once inside, the show feels quite sparse, with various finds from the area around the first Emperor’s tomb, providing an overview of the Qin dynasty and the lead up to the building of the Emperor’s tomb from which the Warriors are taken. The circuitous route through these finds leads eventually to the main event, the grand display of a dozen or so figures, horses and chariots – the Terracotta Warriors themselves.
It was really quite affecting and exciting, seeing these figures again, and in London this time—my home—and not where I was a stranger. I guess it made me feel quite proud to have seen them in their original setting, on that blisteringly hot day amongst the mountains. In this context I had much more information available to me, in English, so I was able to take away a much more complete understanding of the Warriors than on my first visit.
Aside from my personal reactions to the pieces themselves, what also interested me about the show was the relative weights of meaning accorded to the various subjects of the show and how these cohabited together in a somewhat uneasy way. The title of the show is “The First Emperor” and the subtitle is “China’s Terracotta Army.” These two bits of information and the way they have been juxtaposed is very interesting, I think. Although this is ostensibly a show about a particular period of world history and a particular person, which the title makes clear, there is also the need to allow for the fame of the Terracotta Warriors to be used as a way of drawing the contemporary public’s interest. It would be inconceivable, I think, for them not to be mentioned in the title somewhere, and obviously their image is also on all the posters for the show – the point of entry, the first encounter with the show for many people even before they come to the BM. In fact it is more or less understood that this is what the show is about, the Emperor becomes a lesser subject than these clay objects, his minions.
I think the Emperor would find that ironic, given that these figures were installed there to ensure his martial success in the afterlife, his continuing and eternal presence as overlord. Of course, the Emperor’s tomb itself has not yet been excavated (and may never be according to the exhibition displays). Perhaps this is just a temporary infatuation that will shift back to the Emperor once he has been revealed.
I really enjoyed the show and would recommend it. Today it was still possible to get in front of the objects on display. However I dread to think what it will be like when it gets busy—I heard that many time-slots are already sold out—I can only hope that the number of people allowed in those slots leave space to see the displays.