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Chinese warriors go on display at Children’s Museum


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A cavalryman and horse, two of the thousands of terra cotta figures found in Shaanxi, China. The carvings are part of the new exhibit Terra Cotta Warriors, showing through Nov. 2 at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis.
A cavalryman and horse, two of the thousands of terra cotta figures found in Shaanxi, China. The carvings are part of the new exhibit Terra Cotta Warriors, showing through Nov. 2 at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis.


Under a Chinese farmer’s field, an army of thousands waited. Archers poised with drawn bows. Cavalrymen stood with their horses. Infantry soldiers gripped spears and swords, ready to charge when the order came to defend the emperor.

For more than 2,000 years, this force remained hidden. But this summer, they are on the move in Indiana.

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis has unveiled more than 100 ancient artifacts from the site of the legendary Terra Cotta warriors of China. Visitors can peer into the eyes of the intricately carved soldiers, marvel at the stone armor crafted for each one and see the weaponry they used to unite an empire.

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is the only place in the U.S. where the Terra Cotta warriors will be on display this year.

To bookend the historical artifacts, visitors can walk through a modern tea shop, learn about panda conservation and see authentic dance and musical performance in a companion exhibit, “Take Me There: China.”

“We wanted to be able to show history,” said Charity Counts, the museum’s associate vice president of exhibits. “You get to really be immersed in the country and the culture today. But the thing about China is that, even though it’s very modern and growing, there are many longstanding traditions that still go back to the first emperor.”

The Terra Cotta figures are considered to be one of the most monumental archaeological discoveries of all time. The first was uncovered in 1974, when peasants digging a well in China’s Shaanxi province found clay fragments.

Since then more than 1,900 figures have been unearthed. It is estimated that more than 8,000 exist under the dirt, along with 10,000 real weapons, 670 horses and 130 chariots.

“It’s one of those stories that everyone imagines as a child, finding this amazing archaeological discovery,” said Christian Carron, director of collections at the museum. “He was literally re-creating his life on earth for his next life.”

‘Truly, nothing like this’

The army was created by Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. During his rule from 259 to 210 B.C., Qin Shi Huang conquered and united all of the states of ancient China.

To be honored after death, he ordered more than 700,000 workers to construct an elaborate tomb complex, guarded by a clay army.

But he also prepared for other aspects of the afterlife. In one unearthed area, archaeologists have found a water garden that contained bronze statues of cranes and geese and may have run with canals of mercury.

“Truly, nothing like this has ever been made in China since he had this constructed,” Counts said.

Over the past decade, the Chinese government has been loaning out a selection of pieces as part of a traveling exhibition. The Terra Cotta warriors have been displayed in London, Atlanta and Houston. But their trip to Indianapolis will be the first time the figures will be included in a children’s museum.

“It might seem like a unique subject for a children’s museum, but we really wanted to be able to share a great story that connected to ancient China, as a balance to our modern-day China exhibit,” Counts said. “A good hook is when you have objects that are important.”

Working with the Shaanxi Cultural Heritage Center, which manages all of the artifact exhibitions dealing with the Terra Cotta warriors, museum officials created a showcase. The focus was to be on how the figures were created and how they were painted.

Though most appear to be a dusty gray today, the warriors at one time were brightly painted in red, green, blue and other colors.

When visitors walk through the exhibit’s doors, they are greeted by a solitary clay head in a display case. The black and orange paint is badly flaking, but enough has been preserved to allow people to see what the figure once looked like.

“One thing you don’t often get to see is a figure in person that is painted. Paint is one story we wanted to focus on in this and how they were vibrantly colored,” Counts said.

‘We don’t just talk to you’

Gazing up at the figures, it’s easy to imagine how impressive the army would have looked during Qin’s time. The warriors are towering, more than 6 feet tall.

Each one has a unique look. Cavalry soldiers, infantrymen, archers and generals have different armor, weaponry and clothing. Their facial expressions are all different, and craftsmen went as far as to give them furrowed brows and facial hair with detailed strands.

“This required massive construction, multiple pits around the First Emperor’s tomb in China. It’s all amazing that it’s been preserved and unearthed in the last 34 years,” Carron said.

The exhibit is as interactive as possible when dealing with 2,000-year-old artifacts, Counts said. Though all six Terra Cotta figures are protected in glass cases, children and adults can touch one of the bronze bird statues in the re-created water garden. They can bang an authentic Qin drum and bell. In a special lab, they can mold their own miniature clay warriors.

“We want to allow people to experience the exhibit in a multisensory way,” Carron said. “We don’t just talk to you about the unique faces. We let you mold a face. We don’t just talk about the minerals that were used in the paint. We let you use a computer to create your own paint design.”

Continuing the interactive theme, the museum will feature its “Take Me There: China” exhibit in an adjacent gallery.

Re-creations of Chinese music shops, restaurants, medical dispensaries and theaters will provide a glimpse at modern culture.

Ma Lan, a Chinese musician specializing in the drum, will teach classes and discuss dance, songs and handwriting throughout the summer. Another Chinese visitor, Chen Lin, will demonstrate calligraphy as part of the teacher-in-residence program.

Brothers Li Min and Li Long will give performances in long pot tea pouring and mask changing — exquisite physical routines showing the beauty of Chinese culture.

“We want to really look at what it’s like for a family living in China today. So you have ancient China and contemporary China today,” Carron said.

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