The Amusement Park Exhibition, or, What Money Can Do

I was intrigued when I heard that some of the ancient Chinese terracotta warriors would be on view in New York, though as many people pointed out to me, there are a lot of them–China can spare a few. I was even more intrigued that what one would think of as a major art historical, anthropological and archaeological attraction was not coming to a major New York museum like the Metropolitan, or even the Museum of Natural History, but rather, the Times Square Discovery Center. The WHAT? This for-profit institution is on par with Ripley’s Believe or Not and Madame Tussaud’s, though certainly much classier. This same institution also hosted the Dead Sea Scrolls. When you think about it, only a for-profit institution would have the bread to shell out for shipping, care, and display of such things.

So I took this as an opportunity not only to see the fabled clay personages, but to expand my exhibition horizons. How would a for-profit institution, particularly one that catered mainly to tourists in the most touristy location on earth, handle design, didactics, and other things that usually aren’t even options on the shoestring budgets most museums work with?

Item number one was ticket price – you think MoMA and the Guggenheim are expensive? Think again. I was lucky to come across a Groupon that got me the $27 ticket for only $17. Tickets for each exhibition sold separately, and I doubted that saying I work in a museum would get me in gratis as it does at most non-profit institutions.

Item number two was entering the show, which involved being ushered through an unused labyrinth of elastic barriers, as with the lines at an amusement park. I gather when the place is more crowded these are actually used, and I would soon find out why. Rather than entering the exhibition, visitors gathered in a room where, when the group reached critical mass, we were shown an introductory film, not unlike a History Channel special. At the end of the film, the screen rose to reveal a dramatically-lit suit of armor through a Chinese-style circular doorway, through which we finally entered the exhibition. It really was not unlike an amusement park or certain historic attractions, where you can’t enter until you watch the video.

From there we had a bit of a crowd problem, since everyone was entering the exhibition and trying to see the same objects and read the same texts at the same time, rather than being organically spread out as per usual. I ran ahead of the crowd, and then came back for what I missed.

Despite my perhaps mocking tone thus far, the exhibition itself was very well done–really, it was a great example of what a museum could do with money. The design elements–banners, signs, texts, maps, lighting, custom stone hexagonal display cases–contributed to the theme and atmosphere without being too much or too distracting.

The didactics were just right: plenty of maps, texts and timelines, but again not too much. They were informative without being patronizing; they were clearly more skilled at both appealing to and informing a general audience than more high-minded museums, who sometimes try but don’t always know how to speak to a general audience. Perhaps another reason that all these didactic materials were included was that the for-profit institution could afford to produce them.

The content itself was great. I was a little bored at first by the progression of bronze vessels (they of course did not do the big reveal of the warriors right away), but the more I saw, the more intrigued by the artifacts I was, and the more I saw their individual beauty. Some particular highlights were: decorated bronzed structural fittings for wooden beams in the palace; an earthenware drainage pipe made up of many flared, fitted pieces; and a display showing the different shaped currencies for the different warring states, including the familiar square in a circle that is still used today because it was associated with the Qin Dynasty, the first dynasty to unite China and call itself an empire.

Then, after a video interviewing the farmer who discovered the warriors and an archaeologist responsible for the excavation, you turn a corner, and there on a mounted platform, surrounded by Hollywood-like lighting, were a terracotta high-ranking officer (distinguished by the height of his headdress) and a horse. There were several more figures of various ranks to follow. All were minutely detailed, realistic, and in excellent condition. Interesting and surprising also was a life-size and life-like swan; apparently in addition to an army and a cavalry, the Qin emperor had included enough animal figures to stock a pleasure garden for his afterlife.

Following the figures from the Qin tomb was a whole set of a lot more, although smaller scale, figures (animals, humans) from tombs from the Han Dynasty, a succeeding dynasty that was influenced by this Qin custom of stocking tombs with figures for the afterlife. A few fascinating artifacts from this section as well: ancient dildos; figures representing female warriors; and a bas-relief tomb gate, with silhouetted figures doing chores in buildings in section like dollhouses.

As I indicated, all in all it was a worthwhile show, though perhaps not worth the price-tag as I’m sure you can see many similar artifacts in more traditional institutions. Nonetheless, it was an interesting lesson in what kind of quality you can wring out of a much larger budget than museums usually have to work with.


2 thoughts on “The Amusement Park Exhibition, or, What Money Can Do

  1. Pingback: The Jewish Museum, Part 1: Kehinde Wiley | SmARTy ART Chick

  2. Pingback: Confessions of a Failed Blogger | SmARTy ART Chick

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