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High-technology Finds Home at the Palace Museum's 'Relic Hospital' in Beijing
 Date: 2017-03-27  Page Views:


For many who have watched Masters of the Forbidden City, the 2016 film based on a three-episode documentary TV series of the same name, the most striking scenes may not have been restorers burying themselves in traditional hands-on restoration work within the Palace Museum, but the images of centuries-old relics lying under microscopes and CT machines waiting to be examined and "healed."

While traditional methods and years of experience are still the major means used when carrying out the museum's restoration work, as shown in the film and the documentary series, more modern technology has been introduced, including X-ray machines, hyperspectral scanning, 3D printing and even Google Glass.

Modern assistance 

For restorers working at the Palace Museum, these high-tech additions are great helpers.

"You see, both our hands are occupied when we are working, so we need someone else to take these pictures and videos for us," explains Dou Yicu, a restorer from the ceramic branch of the museum's Conservation Department, in the film while working on a statue of a mythological beast's head.

"But with this, you can take pictures very easily and it allows us to take photos and pictures when we are working. It's convenient," Dou says, referring to the pair of Google Glasses he is wearing.

Another interesting case of hi-tech application in the film is the use of 3D printing to replace the missing parts of an ancient bronze ware.

In the film, an expert from the Conservation Department's bronze branch points out that traditional methods of making replacement parts involve making a mold of the original relic. However, these molds risk damaging the very object they are trying to save, as such 3D printing and scanning is a much better alternative.

There are numerous such examples in the film of how technology's role in traditional restoration is growing.

One scene from the film sees experts use an X-ray machine to scan the palm lines on the hand of a wooden Buddha statue, which would be nearly impossible to see due to the poor condition of the paint on the statue.

In another scene, restorers use hyperspectral scanning to examine ancient painting scrolls. The machine helps the restorer analyze the brush strokes and types of pigment used by the original artist, therefore helping the restorers to restore the painting to as close to the original as possible.

In a report from the People's Daily on February 13, Zhang Lifu - head of the Hyperspectral Remote Sensing Application Division at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital Earth, the institute that invented the machine - stated that one of the benefits of hyperspectral scanning is that it is a safe way to analyze ancient paintings, which are often extremely fragile due to their age.

A great combination 

On December 29, 2016, the Palace Museum brought in even more modern technology into its ancient relic restoration efforts with the establishment of its "relic hospital."

"The white corridor inside the hospital is clean and tidy, and to either side are clinic rooms where all the relic 'doctors' dress in white uniforms," the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) Newspaper described the hospital in a report published on February 14.

The hospital has access to numerous hi-tech equipment such as CT machines specially designed for relic restoration, 3D video microscopes and X-ray fluorescence spectrometers.

In the CPPCC Newspaper report, Shan Jixiang, curator of the Palace Museum, said they chose to call it a "relic hospital" because the process of relic restoration is very much like patients going to the hospital where the combination of a doctor's experience and modern machines work together to make patients healthy again.

Of course, technology is definitely not a one-size-fit-all solution to relic restoration. For many restorers at the Palace Museum, traditional skills and experience are irreplaceable.

"Modern creations, no matter how good they may be, are totally different from hands on craftsmanship. Inkjet painting works with printing ink, which lacks a sense of texture," says one expert from the painting and calligraphy branch of the museum's Conservation Department in the film.

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