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Beijing's Forbidden City adds "virtual" attraction
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19:30, August 26, 2009

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China's 600-year-old Forbidden City is renovating its website in a move to spice up its offerings of Chinese culture, said the information chief of the Palace Museum Wednesday.

Hu Chui, head of the museum's Information Department, told Xinhua that the new version is planned to launch during the National Day Festival in early October.

"It would give visitors richer and easier access to the imperial city, the ancient building complex with as many as 8,707 rooms and 1.5 million artistic articles," said Hu, who is leading a team of 60 to boost the museum digital display.

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

The new website is restructured to meet the different demands of visitors, either as a layman or an expert, Hu said.

There will be quiz games teaching basic knowledge about ancient China, which is suitable for children. To make it attractive, 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 (1636-1911).

Older visitors can expect tens of thousand of pictures in refined quality with rich introductions. And researchers might have access to the museum's academic research findings in a database.

This is part of the imperial palace-turned museum's effort to move into the virtual world.

His team are producing seven 3-D documentaries, apparently one of the most effective media to realize the education purpose. Each of them is a 20 to 30-minute film mixed with real scenes and special effects produced by computer.

A yet-to-open 3-D cinema is in the southwestern corner hall in the yard of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, with black walls and red chairs.

Xu Ying, director of the museum's exhibition technology section, said the cinema is built of a removable steel structure that minimizes the possible damages to the ancient wood architecture of the hall.

"We are recruiting management staff now. Our top problem is to ensure the safety of the palace hall when audience crowd in," she said.

Qi Xin, technician of the team, admitted it is hard. "Unlike the ordinary museums, the wood construction of the building is the exhibit itself. The preservation is as important as the exhibition," he said.

From April until now, visitors have been able to use electric touch screens to scan details of ancient calligraphy works and paintings in the imperial collections at an exhibition in the Hall of Martial Valor in the southwestern part of the palace.

On the screens, beside every piece of exhibits, one could easily find their introductions in details and zoom in the high-definition pictures, large enough to discern even tiny strokes.

"It's wonderful. I could see much clearer via this than pressing my face onto the glass surrounding the exhibits," said Chen, a near-sighted college sophomore from Jiangsu Province who refused to give his full name. "This is what a museum should be."

The Forbidden City was listed as a World Heritage Site in 1987 by UNESCO with the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world.

Despite more than 8 million visitors annually, knowledge of its architecture and antique collections are sometimes alien to the public. Many visitors come here 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.

Now, about 200,000 users have registered in the museum's "Virtual Forbidden City" online travel community or "Beyond Time and Space", which kicked off last October jointly with IT giant IBM.

A click on the mouse, and the Chinese cultural beginner could take a three-dimensional tour of the 725,000-square-meter museum.

However, it reports weakness as well. Despite many registration, the number of users online is flattening.

Yang Shuo, 25-year-old user, said, "It really attracted me at first. But the content is limited. An electric tour takes only 15 minutes. You have few things to do if logging in twice."

Other users complained it is slow in moving and changing scenes during the 3-D tour.

Guo Weide, manager of Corporate Citizenship and Cooperate Affairs, IBM Greater China Group, said, "We hope to make further development together with the museum."

IBM produced a similar online museum "Eternal Egypt" based on Egypt's pyramids.

"I'm sure the new website could make up its shortcomings," said Hu. "And after all, the digital technology is a supplementary tool that attracts and helps people to know."

Taking pictures of artistic articles in the museum for 30 years, he said it is "a great pity" that so many valuable artifacts are unknown to the world.


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