The Field Museum has always ranked high among Chicago’s star attractions, and its new Cyrus Tang Hall of China will only serve to enhance its reputation as one of the great museums of the world. The 350 objects displayed in this permanent exhibition – selected from the museum’s collection of some 33,000 Chinese pieces – would be fascinating to see under any circumstances. But the Field Museum’s innovative new touchscreen displays greatly deepen the experience.
Touchscreens are nothing new, but the Field Museum’s use of them is groundbreaking. Instead of small iPads mounted to the wall, these large touchscreens form an integral part of each of the display cases. Visitors can learn the basics about each object, and if they find it particularly interesting, they can select additional short essays to learn more about each piece. An ordinary exhibition contains about 15,000 words of commentary, according to Project Manager Tom Skwerski, but the Hall of China is enriched with about 100,000 words illuminating the objects.
The touchscreens’ potential was most fully exploited by the display of the Qingming Scroll, a 27-foot-long 17th-century silk painting which cannot be shown in its entirety because of its fragility. Visitors can see a short section of the actual piece, and explore the entire scroll in detail on a huge neighboring touch screen. It was great fun to move along the scroll, touching various groups of figures to discover that they were wrestlers or a wedding procession. The high definition of the photography allowed us to zoom in to any section of the scroll we wished, revealing detail as small as the weave of the silk.
A major goal of the exhibition is to demonstrate the vast diversity of China in terms of culture, religion and geography.
The exhibition starts with China’s prehistory and then organizes itself according to theme, rather than chronology, with focuses on topics such as the emperor and courtly life, religion and trade. Accordingly, the exhibition looks at its objects from an anthropological viewpoint rather than an aesthetic viewpoint, in contrast to the nearby Art Institute. A major goal of the exhibition, according to Skwerski, is to demonstrate the vast diversity of China in terms of culture, religion and geography. “There is no one China,” he asserted, a fact the Chinese government has tried to change for decades, thankfully without success.
Aside from the Qingming Scroll, be sure not to miss the handkerchief covered in tiny writing used by a student to cheat on his exams. We also loved the video of a thoroughly charming shadow puppet show. Here, too, the innovative display left us impressed. One side of the screen showed the puppets from the audience’s perspective, but visitors can also walk around to the other side to watch the puppeteers and musicians at work.
It was one more clever choice in an exhibition that museums around the world will surely want to emulate.