Palace in Your Pocket
Many people get the chance to admire the Palace Museum (Forbidden City) in person, but no one gets to build their own mansion there, redesign the royal garden and revive the brush used by Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Today, however, a mobile app named the “Palace Museum Community” can make each of these dreams come true after a virtual city based on the architectural style of the Palace Museum went online in May 2017.
The Forbidden City served as the royal palace for emperors of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties. It was renovated into the Palace Museum and opened to the public in 1925. After centuries of rises and falls, the royal building complex has been injected with new vitality via the internet. It is now reinvigorated and closer to ordinary people. What influenced this development?
“Part of Our Lives”
The office of the new media team of the Palace Museum is located in the former “kitchen” of Shoukanggong, or the Hall of Longevity and Good Health, in the museum. Like other offices, it is filled with computers and loads of files and books, but the original structure is all protected with boards.
The Palace Museum’s official Weibo (Chinese version of Twitter) account has attracted millions of netizens. The account is even more popular than one might expect, which is exactly what Guo Ting and his teammates hoped.
“We have been tweeting about the Palace Museum since Weibo first arrived on the scene,” asserted team leader Guo Ting. “When microblogging first became popular in 2010, we were right there. The classic Palace Museum has been able to continue offering fresh looks.”
Its official Weibo account was launched as a window for anyone who wanted to learn more about China’s Palace Museum and to showcase the extensive collection of the royal families. The new media era has created many more ways to touch the public than dry textbook readings.
The team’s painstaking efforts have produced vivid, poetic pictures featuring a strong aura of the Palace Museum. They divided posts into topics such as “Bright and Beautiful Spring,” “Cool Summer,” “Brilliant Autumn,” and “Warm Winter.” Massive amounts of photos of the Forbidden City from new angles are also posted online regularly.
“We want to make the Palace Museum a lifestyle,” explains Guo. “We hoped to make our digital work and social platform part of people’s lives, so that the royal life becomes ‘common’. That’s what we’ve been striving for.”
A Small Incision
The team mapped out new plans for its own mobile app in the second half of 2012 as apps became all the rage. The arrival of Zhuang Ying, who has worked for the Palace Museum since 2008 as an editor of its English website, was a game changer.
“After graduation, I thought I’d take a shot at the job of English editor here and applied,” recalls Zhuang, who majored in American culture in college. “Like many people, I had no idea what it would be to work with the Palace Museum. Some of my relatives assumed I had been hired as a tour guide. I got inspired to show everyone the most hidden corners of the Palace Museum and the most stunning pieces in its collection. I could feel that mobile digital media was the best way to make it happen.”
As mobile media became more popular, many museums introduced apps to guide visitors, but not the Palace Museum. “We did a lot of research and decided that a guide app would be a daunting task with so many variables,” explains Zhuang. “Despite the fact that everyone else was doing it, we opted to first make an app that recommended pieces in our collections and then go deeper from there.”
It didn’t take long. In May 2013, the Palace Museum debuted “Yinzhen’s Beauties,” an app focused on 12 fine brushwork lady paintings from the Qing Dynasty. The app illuminated royal Qing life through presentations on tea-tasting, reading, meditation and butterfly admiration as well as interior decoration and table setting.
During research and development, Zhuang Ying hunted for so many materials that books were usually piled a meter high on her desk. She dug through details on names, times and context that the app needed, each of which was crosschecked by experts of relevant sectors, including makeup, jewelry, ceramics and clocks.
She made special visits to retirees like Hu Desheng, a specialist in ancient Chinese furniture, and Wang Lianqi, an expert on ancient Chinese calligraphy and painting. The former contributed captions for the furniture as well as utensils and the latter conducted textual research for the hanging scrolls and poems in the background.
Such thorough research ultimately resulted in just more than 1,000 Chinese characters that made it to the app.
While the app “Yinzhen’s Beauties” was in development, Zhuang invited experts to review it, who argued fiercely on topics such as the material used for the monk-hat pot in a painting. Even details that couldn’t possibly matter to most people constantly ate at her. Zhuang felt it was her duty to provide expert-confirmed authenticity to do justice to both the museum and users.
“We spent more than a year on the app before it was released,” Zhuang notes. “We couldn’t release shoddy work because we’re representing the Palace Museum, which is the essence of traditional Chinese culture and a living testament to its most supreme aesthetics.”
The app saw 200,000 downloads two weeks after its release, and was cited as one of China’s Best Apps of 2013 by Apple Store.
“Falling in Love”
Photography is closely intertwined with new media. In 2014, Zhang Lin was hired as a photographer by the Palace Museum after he graduated from the Archaeological Department of Peking University. He oversees operations of the Micro Palace Museum, and many of his photos touch hearts.
“I studied archaeology of the Shang and Zhou dynasties (1600-221 B.C.) in college,” he explains. “My knowledge of the Ming and Qing dynasties was so poor that I could hardly name the Ming emperors. Soon after I started my career in the Palace Museum, I became immersed in that period of history and fascinated by the many places in the imperial architectural complex that remain unknown to the public.”
“My early work here was bad,” Zhang grimaces. “I took photos based on my naive understanding of the subjects. I thought the 600-year-old royal palace represented a sense of loss, so I focused on the dingy corners. After talking extensively with my seniors, I realized that history and nostalgia are not all that the Palace Museum has.”
Soon, he started posting photos online that refreshed the time-honored glory with modern appeal: the magnolia blooming in spring, the fish and water lilies in summer, the golden falling leaves in autumn, and the silvery structures in winter.
In his three years there, Zhang has shot every corner of the Palace Museum, but his most popular shots are of a snowy scene in 2015. It had just snowed all night. The next day was a bright Monday, when the museum was closed to the public. Zhang and another photographer requested to enter the museum to take photos of the three great halls. “It was just us two looking down from the Gate of Supreme Harmony,” recalls Zhang. “It was gorgeous: The square of the Hall of Supreme Harmony was glimmered in the sunlight.”
Two of his snowy photos were shared a record 200,000-plus times online and became de facto ads for the Palace Museum—more than 80,000 people showed up after a lunchtime snowfall.
The Palace Museum’s microblog presents a world of blossoming flowers every spring, accompanied by poetry. “There were far more species than I knew, so I had to work hard to study the flowering plants in the museum,” grins Zhang, who is a sort of gatekeeper of the royal palace to modern flower fans.
The Palace Museum’s popularity has grown in recent years and the digital media crew is straining to keep up with the increasing demand.
“For some, the Palace Museum is just a tourist attraction,” says Zhang. “But it’s actually much more than just a museum. We want to offer a visual feast to our users and provide compelling information about the Palace Museum so that they may fall in love with it as much as we have.”
Over the last few years, the Palace Museum's cultural and creative products have proved tremendously popular. Its official flagship store at Taobao.com has been a favorite of netizens.
Works of the digital media crew of the Palace Museum.
The digital team has always been inspired by the rich collection of the Palace Museum.