A Palace Museum project wins an award, underscoring the importance of academic research in the restoration of Forbidden City architecture

Baoyun Lou, or the Hall of Embodied Treasures, stands out among other parts of the Palace Museum, also known as the Forbidden City, which was the seat of power in imperial China.

Inside the complex that occupies 861,000sq yd in the heart of Beijing, the Western-style villa is prominent. It was constructed by the western gate of the Forbidden City as a warehouse for cultural relics in 1914.

On 18 April, the International Day for Monuments and Sites, Baoyun Lou and five other conservation projects were given this year’s award for “outstanding monument restorations in China”. The award, based on professional assessments and a public poll, is bestowed by the Chinese committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites in Paris.

Recalling his experience of working on the Baoyun Lou project, Wu Wei, an engineer, said the project is a mix of archaeology, historical research and restoration: “We used digital methods to record all the information held by the architectural components of the hall before we took any more steps.”

Mr Wu’s team did research in the surrounding areas of Baoyun Lou, which was built on the foundation of an old palace. The palace was destroyed in a fire in 1912, but the front gate of the courtyard survives. The archaeological research found the gate dates to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

We’ve seen more renovation projects of heritage sites that make academic research a priority. That is what will be widely promoted nationwideSong Xinchao, deputy director, State Administration of Cultural Heritage

“This is  different from what is recorded in files saying the original gate came up since the mid-Qing Dynasty (1644-1911),” Wu said. “We may have more discoveries.”

Surprises keep popping up. For example, the tiles, which Mr Wu describes as “beef tongues” because of their shapes, were found to be imported from Germany after he went through records that indicate that a German architecture firm worked in the Forbidden City in 1914.

“We cannot find any similar counterparts of such tiles in China,” Mr Wu said. “It’s a pity we can’t identify the specific workshop that made them,” he says.

As a compromise, the team worked with a workshop in Tianjin to mimic the original material. New “beef tongues” were made to fix the broken ones, “but we will make sure these newly added parts are recognisable from the original”, Mr Wu said.

“We have also left information about where they were produced on the tiles to help the future generations to renovate this place again.”

The Baoyun Lou project has also created a chance to revitalise disappearing traditional craftsmanship, he said. For example, some doors of this place were painted in a kind of dye made from ash found at the bottom of cooking pots, but the technique is almost lost today.

“Some restorers had suggested that it be replaced with asphalt, but we stuck to using the old formula. We found the right craftsman in Beijing. That saved the skill from dying.” 

The Palace Museum began large-scale renovations in 2002, and the plan is to complete most projects by 2020 to mark the 600th anniversary of the Forbidden City.

However, before the Baoyun Lou project, many such projects suffered from a lack of detailed investigation, and the awarded project marked a mindset change for restorers.

The renovation of Dagaoxuan Dian, a Ming-era royal Taoist temple under the administration of the Palace Museum, and Yangxin Dian (the Hall of Mental Cultivation), the residence of the last eight Qing emperors, followed the same disciplines — comprehensive archaeological research, records of historical information and laboratory analysis from the beginning.

Scaffolding on the ornate red exterior of the Palace Museum’s Shenwu Men, or the Gate of Divine Might, during restoration work in 2017
The Palace Museum’s Shenwu Men, or the Gate of Divine Might, underwent extensive restoration in 2017 Credit: JIN WEN FOR CHINA DAILY

“We’ve seen more renovation projects of heritage sites that make academic research a priority,” said Song Xinchao, deputy director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, who is also head of the Chinese committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites. “That is what will be widely promoted nationwide.

“Conservation of the sites cannot be simply treated as construction work. They should be seen as rigid studies. Plans need more evaluation before action is taken.”

Over the past few decades, a common practice in renovating historical sites in China has been to give structures a new look, but the winners of the recent award indicate a shifting trend.

“The relics may look as good as ‘newborn’ after renovation,” Du Qiming, an ancient architecture expert and deputy director of Henan Museum, said. “But historical information present in the architecture is also erased through such methods.”

He compares the scenario to ancient Chinese paintings. “Inscriptions left by collectors throughout history are as important as the paintings per se, because they show how the art piece was circulated,” Mr Du said.

“It is also suitable for old architecture. The broken parts with abundant information should be kept. They are part of history.”

In the case of Baoyun Lou, 140 old bricks were planned to be replaced by new ones at first, but Mr Wu’s team found that some broken bricks were usable after being fixed. Only 20 bricks were replaced in the end.

A certification system has been established in recent years to ensure all restorers within the Forbidden City are trained properly

“The principle of minimum intervention was thus used to preserve its genuine historical value,” Mr Song said. “And all renovations should be reversible in case wrong decisions are made.”

He also emphasised that old architecture has to be better used after conservation to prolong its life.

Baoyun Lou sets a good example as a reception room for the Palace Museum. It is now used as an exhibition venue to review the history of the Forbidden City after it became a museum in 1925.

Its courtyard was a stage featuring Treasure the Treasures, an original historical play created by the museum’s staff. And it was a venue for a summit of leaders from China and the United States in November.

Problems still haunt conservation efforts in China. At a news conference outside Baoyun Lou on 16 April, Shan Jixiang, director of the Palace Museum, said the compulsory bidding system for the conservation has created a threshold.

“Rules demand that the projects introduce market competition. That will lead to the cheapest plans being favoured. However, regular construction workers lack rigid training in professional conservation.”

It also leads to modern construction materials being used instead of the originals. “There is a huge gap in quality,” Mr Shan said. “Sometimes, they even don’t match at all.”

What is good is that, with more academic studies being introduced to conservation work at the museum, a certification system has been established in recent years to ensure all restorers within the Forbidden City are trained properly.

But the lack of tailored materials for conservation remains a bottleneck. Consequently, the Palace Museum is now building connections with regions that supplied construction materials in the imperial years. 

This article was originally produced and published by China Daily. View the original article at chinadaily.com.cn

Source: The Telegraph