In October, the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia will present a few of the ancient Chinese terracotta warriors that were discovered in China in the 1970s.
Farmers digging a well near the city of Xi’an accidentally discovered one of the great wonders of the ancient world: an entire army of life-size soldiers — about six thousand strong — made of clay. The terracotta army was made for the burial site of the First Emporer of China in 200 BC, so that he would be just as powerful in the afterlife as he was in this life.
The figures are now owned by the Chinese government, who only allow 10 of them to travel to a Northern American museum a year. The Franklin Institute successfullly lobbied the Chinese to give them the entire quota for the continent, to be the centerpiece of an exhibition that will describe now why they were made, but how.
“They were really excited about the different approach,” said Franklin CEO Larry Dubinski, who traveled to Xi’an several times to meet with officials there.
The First Emporer of China, Qin Shi Huang Di of the Qin Dynasty, used assembly-line techniques to mass-produce weapons of war. This was 2000 years before Henry Ford.
“He succeeded in conquering all warring states because of his use of the crossbow trigger mechanism, mass-produced through molding and casting,” said Karen Elinisch, director of science content and learning technologies.
The emperor learned that using standardized parts which where easily interchangeable led to success on the battlefield. He quickly incorporated that concept into all aspects of his empire.
“From the top down he had edicts for standardizing currency, and written language, which until then had no uniform script,” said Elinich. “He also put weights and measures into play. If trade among people in the empire was ever going to succeed, standards for weights and measures were essential.”
He also used mass-production techniques to create his burial complex and the estimated 6,000 terracotta soldiers that would be buried with him. The assembly-line process allowed him to bring in many thousands of unskilled laborers. About 700,000 people — the population of a large American city — were believed to have worked on his afterlife.
The Franklin Institute will be flexing its own technological muscle to pull off the exhibition. Visitors will be able to interact with ten of the ancient clay soldiers through an augmented reality app on their phone.
The warriors, originally, carried weapons. Those weapons have long turned to dust, but the soldiers hands are still cupped to grip a sword, or spear, or crossbow. The augmented reality app allows users to point their phone at the terracotta warrior and see the weapon he should be holding.
Augmented reality, while available as a sometimes clunky technology for several years now, is not often seen in a museum setting.
“I think museums, sometimes, wait and hold back until a lot of these things have been proven,” said Susan Poulton. Before becoming the Franklin’s chief digital officer two years ago, she oversaw digital content at National Geographic. “I don’t come from the museum world, so I’m in the unique position to push us into the experimental field.”