AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
By Geoff Edgers
A special international partnership will make the Peabody Essex Museum the first place in the world to display a group of 90 imperial objects from a hidden Chinese palace complex inside Beijing's Forbidden City.
For nearly 500 years, the sprawling Forbidden City served as the home of Chinese emperors. When the last emperor was forced out in 1924, the government closed the doors on a two-acre compound deep within the Forbidden City, filled with magnificent 18th-century artworks and other objects.
Now the US public will see those works for the first time in a show called "The Emperor's Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City." The objects, which range from paintings and murals to exquisite pieces of furniture and jades, will make up an exhibition running Sept. 14-Jan. 9 at the Salem museum. Organized by PEM with the Palace Museum, Beijing and the New York-based World Monuments Fund, the show will then travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Milwaukee Art Museum.
“These are objects created by the finest artists at the time, and they’ve never been seen before,” said PEM curator of Chinese art Nancy Berliner, speaking by phone this week from the Forbidden City, where she and a group of museum workers are readying the objects that will be brought to Salem for the show.
It is extremely unusual for China to send cultural objects abroad, and the museum will be the first place anywhere -- including China -- that these pieces will be shown to the public.
The partnership springs from an ambitious $25 million project to renovate the palace garden complex, a project that began in 2001 and won’t be complete until 2019. Officials from the World Monuments Fund overseeing the restoration were impressed by PEM’s installation of Yin Yu Tang, a late Qing dynasty merchants' house, at the museum. After viewing the house in 2004, the nonprofit organization hired Berliner as a consultant.
That led to the Salem museum's coup.
This week, as temperatures in Beijing have risen to 104 degrees, Berliner and four other museum staffers have been meticulously packing up the objects in the palace compound created by Emperor Qianlong in the 18th century and last occupied by Emperor Puyi. It is a quiet, contemplative space, Berliner said, where there is often only room to walk single file because the emperor never intended it to be experienced by groups. Of the
27 buildings in the garden complex, just one has been restored so far.
Speaking by phone from a building that had not yet been restored, Berliner said she was holding a flashlight because there were no lights.
“The feeling inside these buildings and in the garden as a whole is a little bit like being in an incredibly luxurious and contemplative playground,” said Berliner, who noted that she has visited the Forbidden City hundreds of times since her first visit in 1980 but only gained access to Qianlong's complex in recent years.
The museum has great expectations for the exhibition, projecting that it will draw as many as 85,000 visitors. That would make it the second most attended at the museum since its reopening after a major expansion in 2003.
But bringing “The Emperor’s Private Paradise” to Salem is not cheap. The exhibition will cost $1.8 million, or more than the museum spent on exhibitions for all of 2009. All but $300,000 is being covered through support from the Carpenter Foundation, American Express, Mandarin Oriental, and other sponsors.
“This is once-in-a-lifetime material,” said Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, the museum’s chief curator. “This truly is one of those shows where a lot of stars have aligned to make this possible.”
In Salem, Berliner hopes to use architectural flourishes to re-create the feel of the 18th-century garden complex. The works on hand will provide a stunning window into the private universe crafted by China’s rulers. A Buddhist shrine painted on silk shows a series of holy and supernatural figures with Qianlong, depicted in gold, at the center. A carved wooden throne features bamboo thread marquetry, gold paintings, and a jade inlay. And then there is the jade screen depicting the 16 disciples of the Buddha. Only recently did restorers discover that Qianlong, who commissioned the work, had the screen installed in a way that hid the golden images painted on its reverse side. Conservators never knew of that other side.
“He installed it so the panels were actually up against walls," Berliner said. "When they took it out, they discovered that on the side of the panels that faced the walls were these incredibly beautiful paintings of botanical motifs that had never been seen before.”
The Forbidden City is one of the world's most popular tourist attractions, drawing more than seven million people a year. None of the buildings in Qianlong garden complex, however, have been open to the public.
Peabody Essex Museum director Dan Monroe said that he was moved, walking through the hidden space for the first time.
"There are several gates and doors and pathways, but it shocks you with its immensity," he said. "It’s full of large monumental buildings and small buildings and water features and bridges. And it’s a spectacular space that was designed for tranquility and harmony."
Henry Ng, executive vice president of the World Monuments Fund, said that the Palace Museum's trust in Berliner made it possible to bring the works to the United States.
"I don't think it could be done anywhere else," said Ng. "Nancy is the reason they're letting them go."
Hartigan emphasized the beauty of the works that will be on display.
"The fact that the garden itself is this exquisite combination of art, architecture, and nature and that this comes across so clearly in the exhibition is another important aspect of this," she said. "The notion that not even the Chinese themelves have seen these artworks is really remarkable."
Berliner believes it is unlikely that works from the garden complex will ever be allowed out once the restoration is complete. That means, she says, this will be the first and last time these objects will be seen in the United States.
Geoff Edgers can be reached at email@example.com