What is it like to work with antiques and artefacts?
Is it filled with exciting adventures, fights with local cults, and dangerous treks through the jungle, like Indiana Jones?
Or is it more like the Librarians, with magic and fantasy and vampire hordes and fantastic creatures?
Master in Forbidden City is a documentary about the historical relics in the Palace Museum, as well as the life of the people who bring these relics back to life.
The story is told in a slow and leisurely pace, as we follow the restorers in their daily life (feeding the cats, lunch breaks, and joking around). Each restorer is at the top of their respective field.
They work for the Palace Museum’s conservation department, which is responsible for the conservation and restoration of over 1.8 million pieces of historical relics.
For those in the know, they watch the documentary with wonder, as many tricks of the trade have never been revealed to the public previously.
For outsiders like us, we still enjoy the fun of getting a peek at the life of those who work in the same place that used to be the home of generations of emperors.
(The documentary was so popular that after it was aired, the museum received 15,000 job applications for 20 vacancies.)
These dust-covered screens
Have been kept in the storeroom of the Palace Museum for almost 300 years.
It’s 3.5 metres long.
The frames are made of wood from the precious narra tree.
The character of “shou”, which means “longevity”, inlaid in bronze.
5 months later, these screens will go on display in an exhibition.
But for now, they are kept here.
Members of staff here, dressed in white coats and wearing masks, are the foremost experts in ancient artefact restoration.
They live in the modern age, but their craft is one that is millennia old.
There are 32 pieces to the screen they are working on.
They were birthday presents to Emperor Kangxi for his sixtieth birthday.
Each of his 16 sons and 32 grandsons made one piece.
The front of the screen uses bright yellow pongee.
All the characters are “longevity” written in different calligraphy styles. There are over 10, 000 such characters on the screen.
Hence the name of the screen—“the screen of ten thousand longevity (characters)”.
The back of the screen is printed with poetry written with pigments made from azurite.
Each piece of the screen has two poems, each with eight lines, each line with five characters.
The poems were composed by Emperor Kangxi’s sons and grandsons.
Including poems composed by the future Emperor Yongzheng (the fourth son of Emperor Kangxi) and the future Emperor Qianlong (the fourth son of Emperor Yongzheng).
The restorers are hard at work.
Some of the wood has shrunk, leading to cracks in the screen.
They have to fill in the cracks.
Some pieces of the screen are ridden with wormholes.
This restoration project requires the combined expertise of staff from various departments: bronze ware, wooden articles, lacquer ware, paintings and calligraphy, and textile.
They have five months until the 90th anniversary of the Palace Museum.
They have to repair about one piece of the screen each week.
It’s slow and painstaking work, requiring a lot of patience and concentration.
This restoration project is just one of many taking place in the museum.
The timepiece restoration room.
This ancient-looking timepiece is called 铜镀金乡村音乐水法钟, copper plated golden musical clock with flowing water feature.
It was owned by Emperor Qianlong, who loved to collect timepieces.
As the cogs in the clock move, the glass tubes in the clock move as well, creating the illusion of water flowing.
As the doors close on both sides of the tree, the crack in the middle is hidden from view from the front, making it look as if the clock is one intact piece.
This clock has been kept in the storeroom for over a hundred years.
It’s in urgent need of repair and restoration.
Missionaries from the West knew of the emperor’s hobby, and gifted him with many timepieces.
Clocks like this represent the most advanced mechanical techniques and craftsmanship of that time.
But restoring it take a lot of work.
Unlike other artefacts, clocks are in constant use. Craftsmen were kept in the Palace to maintain and repair the clocks, until the year the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty was dethroned.
There are over a thousand timepieces in the museum.
It’s impossible to repair all of them over one’s lifetime. (Just that one musical clock owned by Emperor Qianlong took 8 months to repair.)
It requires generations of effort.
This is the bronze ware room.
These blackish artefacts are actually silverware.
These are wine cups, a total of 12 pieces in a set.
Each one comes with its own story.
This one depicts the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, a group of scholars who lived in the 3rd century CE.
The world-famous Flying Horse of Gansu, discovered in 1969, was repaired by the teacher of the current staff here.
Most of the bronze ware in the museum have been restored. Now the team’s focus is on silverware and anything that has to do with metal.
Knowing how to make replicas is also one of their skills.
Down to the detail of the rust.
There are strict procedures in place for the staff who work here.
Every day, the restorers have to pass through seven doors.
Staff often have to yell something out loud when they go into the workplace.
It’s not because the Palace is haunted, like what urban legends say.
But because there are often stray animals who sneak into the Palace at night. The shout is a wake-up call for them to make themselves scarce.
Some of the cats might even be descendants from imperial cats who actually lived here.
This is the ceramics room.
This is a horse produced using the Tang-style “three-colours” glazing method.
“Three-colours” does not refer to any 3 particular colours. It simply means “multi-coloured”.
Common colours used for glazing are: yellow, green, white, blue, ochre, and black.
This horse is missing its ears, tail, and parts of its legs.
The restorer consults the anatomy diagram of a horse to aid his restoration work.
There are over 350,000 pieces of ceramics in the museum.
This is Shoukang Palace, built by Emperor Qianlong for his mother.
For the 90th anniversary, the staff will try to restore this palace to its former glory, by putting back the over 200 pieces of antiques that used to be part of the palace.
This is the world’s largest closet made out of Hainan fragrant rosewood.
The current price of the fragrant rosewood is about 9,000 yuan per kg.
This closet has hidden compartments, which yielded over 200 pieces of artefacts.
To be continued . . .