Rebecca Catching

Great Leap Forward 2.0—
Internet + and the Rapid Integration
of Digital Technology in Chinese Museums
大跃进2.0: 互联网+和中国博物馆对数码技术的快速结合和应用

Ever since the Great Leap Forward when Mao vowed to “Overtake England and catch Up to America,” the desire to improve technology has been hired-wired into the DNA of the CCP. Though in the 1950s this kind of bluster could be dismissed as wishful thinking—with backyard furnaces melting down scrap metal to produce “high-quality steel”—the immense growth of the overall tech sector in China and its swift adoption of surveillance technology, social credit, and cashless mobile payment methods—should be more than enough reason to convince even the most hardened skeptics of China’s technological prowess.

"The First Congress of the Drama Queen Relics" viral video—part of a cross-institutional marketing campaign on TikTok or douyin

China is currently undergoing what de Kloet et al. describe as a “platformization of society,” whereby a growing percentage of social and economic interactions now occur through platforms such as WeChat, Weibo, Douyin, Zhifubao, Didi, Eleme, Youku, and Tudou. “This development,” he writes, “is strongly aligned with the infrastructural ambitions of the Chinese authorities, clearly aiming to leapfrog into an advanced technological future.” [i]

These ambitions were outlined by Li Keqiang at the National People’s Congress in 2015, where he introduced the concept of “Internet Plus” 互联网络+ (also sometimes written as “Internet+”)—“an ambitious agenda that leverages the power of information technology for economic growth and development,”[ii] according to de Kloet. In the realm of Museums and culture, “Internet Plus” pushes for the integration of technologies such internet, mobile tech, big data, AI and the Internet of Things (IoT) into the brick and mortar operations of museums.

When “Internet Plus” was first announced, references to the policy began to show up in all kinds of literature about museums, authored by museum directors and outside commentators. Often it seemed to be mentioned in passing, with little or no background information, which made it seem little more than a fashionable buzzword, yet in the five years which have passed, Chinese museums went from having barely-functioning websites to presenting highly-sophisticated AR and VR content, developing a roaring business in e-commerce and creating numerous apps to help the non-visiting public to enjoy their collections online.

Baidu Chateau Fontainbleau Digital Museum VR Tour
Baidu Chateau Fontainbleau Digital Museum VR Tour

These rapid improvements have nudged many museums closer to the international standard—that is at least for the top-ten well-funded state museums which include the Palace Museum, National Museum of China, Beijing Capital Museum, Hunan Museum, Shanghai Museum, and the Guangdong Museum. Unfortunately, this zeal for technology is not always evenly distributed as tech tends to be less of a priority for private museums, contemporary art museums, and smaller poorly-funded institutions. In these situations, the use of technology may be limited to having an active WeChat account, one which allows the visitors to purchase tickets online, or the use of QR codes in exhibition spaces allowing viewers to scan QR codes to pull up more information. Yet despite the impressive adoption of digital and internet-based technology, many in the tech industry complain about the quality of digital content, not only bugs but weak storylines, poor graphics or poorly-maintained technology. Still, Chinese museums are making legitimate leaps forward which provide not only examples to learn from but also opportunities to provide services where gaps may exist.

Practical Manifestations of Internet Plus

The application of Internet Plus to the museum structure has several different categories: a) collections care and management (3D scanning, printing, conservation, inventory systems), b) surveillance, security and visitor data gathering, (iBeacon, RFID chips, facial recognition tech, drones, and heatmaps), c) digital content creation (virtual exhibitions, 360 and VR tours, online stores and digital exhibition guides offered through dedicated apps, on websites, through WeChat accounts and WeChat mini-programmes, and d) on-site technology (digital interactives, 3D projections, VR, AR and MR experiences).

Digitizing Collections—For Posterity, Preservation and Democratization of Information

Generally, in the hierarchy of needs, Chinese museums put “preservation” as the key mission; they have only more recently started to take on more public-facing needs such as education, entertainment, “mental escape” or socialization, into consideration. In fact, much of the discourse around museums in China tends to center disproportionately around the topic of “protection” and “security” as if the museum is a China shop and the visitor a rampaging bull. This aside, there are legitimate concerns of not only rogue visitors but also natural disasters, and the slow degradation which occurs to artifacts left in storage.

Sanxingdui Archeological Site—3D Technology in the Service of Artifact Preservation

Chinese museum administrators have been nervous about their collections ever since the first founding of the first few museums in the Forbidden City in the twilight days of the Qing Dynasty. At the Government Museum located in the former imperial palace—administrators were trying desperately to prevent the emperor and his family—who were still living in the palace at that time—from stealing back their personal treasures from the museum—using the need for repair or restoration to wrest them from the hands of the curators. The Wenchuan earthquake in 2008 revived the urgency of protecting collections when some clay objects were damaged by the tremors at the Sanxingdui archeological site in Guanghan, Sichuan.[iii] The site contains buried relics of the Shu Culture—an important Bronze Age civilization, the existence of which has challenged the usual narrative of the spread and development of Han culture throughout China. Following the earthquake, the museum embarked on a large investment in 3D scanning technology to preserve its collection and 3D printing technology to assist in the repair of broken objects. The 3D scanners and printers can be used to make molds of objects to produce lifelike replicas and repair certain parts of broken artifacts. The technology is preservative in another way in that it avoids damage to the artifacts through the traditional mold-making process, and makes for a swifter more efficient conservation process. For instance, the staff selected a bronze mask missing an ear for repair. The mask was symmetrical so they employed 3D scanning and printing technology to replace the missing ear but also produced a complete replica which was displayed alongside the repaired mask.[iv]

The widespread use of these technologies in museums, however, is significantly held back by the lack of technical skills in this emerging technology. Other barriers include the cost of the materials and the fact that the broken parts of objects which are 3D printed then need to be sutured onto the original object. Another hurdle lies in the fact that the 3D-printed sections must be painted because the 3D printing materials are only available in a uniform color. [v]

Digital Dunhuang Website

Onsite Digital Tours Improving Preservation Efforts and Visitor Experience: the Mogao Grottoes

In the case of open-air archeological sites, the issue of preservation has become severely pressing. The Mogao Caves, near Dunhuang, Gansu which lie along the old Silk Road have been subject to a history of plunder and pillage. At various times they have been damaged by White Russian Soldiers, the Kuomintang, Muslim rebels and even art historian and explorer Langdon Warner, who removed 26 frescoes with the intent of bringing them to Harvard’s Fogg Museum—only a few survived. The site consists of a complex of 462 temples which date back to 336 AD and contain lively ornate decorations, numerous Buddha statues, and many important scriptures. Today, the biggest threat to their existence is the 6,000 visitors whose entry and exit wreak havoc with climate control. In order, to first preserve the murals, detailed scans were made of the cave which form the bases of a website-based virtual tour and two films which are projected on an immersive dome screen in the cinema on site.

This approach serves multiple benefits. Not only does it create a “captive audience” for the museum team to properly introduce the history of the caves, but it also allows viewers to actually soak in the details and majesty of the murals given that the images are significantly more dramatic in their cinematic incarnation than they are within the gloom of the caves.

Mogao Grottoes Cave 285
Mogao Grottoes Cave 285

Many visitors have actually complained that they can see very little and that the caves—only eight of the caves can be visited and they are only viewable by torchlight due to preservation concerns. The Digital Dunhuang website, by contrast, offers a fairly-detailed view of 30 different caves, in much more detail than can be grasped by the on-site visitors.

Digitizing Collections—Democratization of Information

This increasing online access to national treasures represents not only a technological feat but also a distinct change in attitude. Traditionally Chinese museums have functioned more like fortresses than open public forums when it came to sharing information about their collections. Even as recently as 2016, at a museum forum held at the Ningbo Museum by Nottingham University, a curator at the Shanghai Museum expressed extreme doubtfulness about the likelihood of the museum wanting to share its whole collection online saying that there are many outstanding issues including verifying the authenticity of the objects. Authenticity aside, the museum culture has traditionally been characterized by a paternalism and sense of protectiveness, which has discouraged the sharing of collections, but this is changing rapidly. 

Museums such as the Guangdong Museum are taking up the torch of democratization of information. Though its rhetoric sometimes outstrips reality, it’s nonetheless encouraging to see this shift in attitude. The museum announced the involvement of “citizen curators” to help curate an exhibition on blue and white porcelain in 2018, and has recently opened up their library to the public—not the whole library, but a reading room open to anyone providing a valid ID. This spirit of openness carries over into their digital policy which involves making high-resolution, 5mb sized files available for download and use through their website. [vi] They have digitized over 10,000 items of their collection, a move which Director Wei Jun says was inspired by the Rijksmuseum.[vii] But the Guangdong museum is not alone, the Palace Museum has made 52,558 of its 1.86 million objects available on its website, though it has been criticized by for demanding that users obtain written permission from the museum in order to use the images. One user complained that the site was not maximized for mobile use, which was a serious oversight given that 98% of China’s 800 million internet users are accessing the internet through mobile platforms.

Guangdong Museum website
Guangdong Museum website

A Difference of Priorities: Disparity in the User Experiences of Different Online Interfaces

Researching this article involved a careful parsing of information—an attempt to separate glowing press releases trumpeting the accomplishments of various institutions, from the actual user experience. For instance, the Guangdong Museum has created an app, Guangdong Museum at Your Fingertips 指尖粤博, which is supposed to facilitate both online and offline visits. It launched on the app store in 2017 but has only had a few hundred downloads and less than three ratings on the Apple Store (one of them was mine). The app frequently times out and fails to load most of the critical functions. The Guangdong Museum website also had serious problems, with the text all crunched together and all the graphics clustered in the middle of the page as if the page was only optimized for mobile and not laptop viewing.

This was quite discouraging given Guangdong Museum’s tech-forward image. I searched for mini-programs in WeChat but found little of interest. It was only when I happened upon the museum’s Official WeChat Account or “gongzhonghao”公众号[viii] that I was able to explore all the functionality which museum Director Wei Jun had been talking about in his article “Smart Museums of the Future.”[ix] All of the functionality of the app was buried in the Official Account, which though somewhat slow to load,[x] was still quite rich in information. The official account featured an audio guide in Chinese and English with a selection of artifact numbers to choose from—clicking on the number revealed the object description which could be played in English and Chinese.


Animating the Artifacts Through 3D Animation: “Along the River During the Qingming Festival”

The use of 3D animation technology has only really begun to enter the realm of the museum in the past decade, with the highly-publicized debut of “River of Wisdom,” a 3D animation of the Song-Dynasty painting, “Along the River During the Qingming Festival,” which was exhibited at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010 (See it here: The painting by Zhang Zedan depicts life in Bianjing (Kaifeng), the capital of the Northern Song, and crowds in Shanghai queued for as long as five hours outside the China Pavilion to get a glimpse. The animation depicts peasants walking with poles bent over their shoulders, while trees sway in the wind and boats bob gently on the water. Camels plod their way through the streets and merchants and farmers navigate their way across the narrow bridges which span the river. At night, the scene is lit up by the warm glow of lanterns as patrons fill up the taverns, warming their bellies with wine. The animation was created by Beijing-based company Crystal CG, which also provided digital design services for the Beijing Olympics. The animation was so popular that it travelled to Macao, Singapore, Hong Kong (960,000 visitors) and Taiwan (1.2 million visitors), making it a stunning success for a homegrown a travelling digital exhibition. Seeing the animation in 2018 at the Palace Museum, I was surprised at how well the animation held up, but it has since been eclipsed by the more sophisticated renderings of classical paintings such as Xiang Shengmo’s of Mount Baiyu, which was animated by Fgreat and the British Museum for the Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery. In 2015, the National Museum of China, in cooperation with Silk Road Digital Vision Co., made their own version of an animated scroll painting based on “Emperor Qianlong’s Southern Inspection Tour,” by Qing-dynasty Painter Xu Yang, which maintained the very subtle style of the 2010 version of “Along the River During Qingming Festival,”—whereas later versions of “Along the River” veered more into the computer animation aesthetic. 

Onsite 3D Projections: Hunan Museum and the Mawangdui Tombs

“River of Wisdom” sparked a trend in museums seeking to add some “wow” into their exhibition design. For instance, the Hunan Museum used 3D animation recreate the atmosphere of the Mawangdui tombs with a four-sided, projection based on the decorations found in the tomb of Xin Zhui, the Marquise of Dai as part of “Changsha Mawangdui Han Dynasty Tombs Exhibition,” 长沙马王堆汉墓陈列, which opened in 2017. The trapezoidal replica of the tomb, which measured roughly 20 x 20 meters was illuminated with 14 projectors and a dome-theatre projection dazzled viewers with astrological imagery garnered from the artifacts found at the site. The project was created by Bokeh visual design studio in Shanghai with equipment support by Christie Digital.

Onsite VR Experiences—Enlivening Archaeology at the Hunan Museum, Beijing Capital Museum, and Baiheliang Underwater Museum

While Chinese museums have traditionally been fixated on having the best objects and collections, VR demonstrates that learning and engagement can happen even without the robust collection of a super museum. Especially since many smaller Chinese museums tend to be “collection poor”—the pivot towards more experiential, information, and narrative-driven exhibition-making is a sensible strategy. In the past five years, there has been a virtual explosion of AR, MR and VR technology.

For instance, the Hunan Museum which did not have much in the way of Egyptian artifacts, collaborated with the Egyptian Museum in Turin to present an exhibition of both artifacts and experiences. The exhibition, “Pharos, Gods, and Mummies,” was launched on September 29, 2018, with 230 pieces from Turin and a VR experience which helped visitors envision the tomb of Nefertiti—its cavern-like architecture decorated with mysterious symbols.

In 2016, The Capital Museum also found ways to breathe life into royal resting places for the exhibition “Queen, Mother, General—40th Anniversary of the Excavation of the Shang Tomb of Fu Hao.” Fu Hao, was the queen of the Shang emperor Wuding, who in addition to conducting important ritual functions, also lead an army of 13,000 troops into war. The archeological significance of the tomb lies in that it is the only preserved royal tomb of the Shang Dynasty and one of the top archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. The exhibition featured a re-creation of her tomb which visitors could enter, watching the space come alive before them with images of Fu Ho and her funerary objects, plus an explanation of the excavation process which initially brought these objects to light.

Archeological sites, with their inherent lack of color, make good candidates for VR experiences, especially when the sites are no-longer viewable in person as with the Baiheliang Underwater Museum—now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Before the building of the Three Gorges Dam, Baiheliang was a cliff which was submerged during most of the year and would only resurface every few years in Winter when water levels of the Yangtze dropped. The cliff is inscribed with images of fish, cranes, and Bodhisattvas dating back to the Tang Dynasty which recorded events such as good harvests. The construction of the Three Gorges Dam put the cliff under water for good, but the Baiheliang Underwater Museum VR Experience 白鹤梁水下博物馆VR体验attempted to recreate what was lost beneath the waters, through an interactive experience of the former site.

The Emergence of AR and MR

While currently VR experiences—offered, through both headset onsite or online through website or mobile phone—are the most dominant form of virtual experience at the moment, there are a few institutions exploring the possibilities of AR (reality augmented by animations viewed seen through a mobile phone) and MR (reality augmented through animations accessed through a headset such as the Microsoft HoloLens). The Hunan Museum has created a dedicated AR app 湖南省博物馆互动 with an exhibition guide function. In the app, Wang Han—a popular talk-show host from Hunan Television—gives his interpretation of various artifacts—acting as a celebrity docent. This reflects global trends to introduce an element of “star-power” into interpretation, for example, the 911 Museum and Memorial in New York hired Robert De Niro to narrate its audio guide.

Elsewhere in the museum, MR was used to recreate a porcelain studio. The “A Millenia of Kiln Technology, MR, Experience Zone” [translation mine] 千年’窑’望MR体验区allowed visitors to navigate the process of porcelain making as though they were potters working with clay and glazes. Meanwhile in Chongqing, “The Old Maps of Old Chongqing Mixed Reality Experience” [translation mine] 老地图·老重庆MR体验” transported viewers into a wildly different version of their home city. Hosted at the Baiheliang Underwater Museum, this mixed reality experience involved a HoloLens headset, which allowed visitors to look at a physical map in front of them and also see animations of the streets filled with mandarins in Qing Dynasty garb and long trailing queues. In this MR experience, the mandarins are at the service of the viewer explaining the significance of the city’s many gates and landmarks. Visitors used voice commands and gestures to guide their own experience—for instance, in an apothecary in Chuqimen—a district steeped in a strong TCM culture—they could use their hands to reach out and select different herbs.[xi] The Museum was featured in the 2018 Best in Heritage Conference as a Project of Influence, for its work with AR and VR and is a rare example of this kind of application in a smaller provincial museum.


Gamified Apps Stoking the Fires of Curiosity: Hangzhou Southern Dynasty Kiln Museum

The Southern Song Dynasty Kiln Museum, would probably not make the top ten of most Hangzhou Tourists, but the institution nonetheless managed to produce an engaging app which is both highly educational and entertaining. The first phase of the app is designed to teach viewers about the constituents of clay, through a “whack-a-mole” kind of game where different elements pop up out of the ground—quartz, white mica, feldspar, and kaolinite—and the user has to grab them on the screen in order to score points. My score was exceptionally low—my clumsy fingers banging away the screen—but at the end, I had a visceral understanding of the difficulties of managing the right combination of elements needed to produce fine clay.

Another game within the app shows viewers a piece of pottery and then asks them to determine which techniques were used and in what order, i.e. reconstituting the clay, coil construction, etc. One game revolves around glazing, and another on firing, tossing virtual logs into the kiln to maintain a steady temperature of 1400 degrees. Players are then given a grade of student, apprentice, skilled artisan or master and after graduating from this level, they are then served up a few art-historical challenges, the app prompting them to match the appropriate porcelain object with the correct period, giving them the choice of illustrations of Neolithic or Yuan Dynasty scenes and asking the user to place the object within the scene. Just mucking about on this app for 30 minutes or so, I managed to learn more about porcelain making than in all my years of museum visits, which represents an impressive accomplishment for a small museum.

Another creative use of educational games can be found in the Hunan Museum AR app湖南省博物馆互动, which uses a game about courtly life to tell the story of lady Xin Zhui (the Marquise of Dai). The user is cast in the role of “lady in waiting” who needs to prepare the proper clothes and accessories for the Marquise to make an appearance at court. The user is presented with several different hairpins or accessories and is asked to choose the appropriate one. Another scene asks the user to scrutinize the dinner table to understand if it has been laid with the right crockery and serving vessels, although given the minuscule size of the implements in this particular part of the game makes is relatively hard to complete.

Hunan Museum AR app
Hunan Museum AR app
Hunan Museum AR app
Hunan Museum AR app

AR and Viral Marketing: A Cross-Institutional Collaboration with Douyin

In May 2018, a video about museum artifacts launched on the video-sharing platform Douyin, (produced in collaboration with the Shanghai studio mad monkey), hit 118 million views and it’s not hard to see why (see the video here: With dancing statues making sly remarks, figurines frenetically waving glow sticks and a bronze vessel stamping its feet, the video entitled “The First Congress of the Drama Queen Relics” [translation mine] 第一届文物戏精大会is something refreshingly irreverent about the video. The video starts off with a flashlight panning around a darkened exhibition hall. The artifacts are finally illuminated and begin to come alive. Word starts to spread amongst them that they are going to “go viral,” which sends them off into an array of campy antics mostly referencing common internet memes. For instance, one figure turns to the camera and says how do you like my “paihui” dance 拍灰舞 (paihui meaning to brush off dust)—a reference to the dance craze which swept Douyin, where hundreds of youths, filmed themselves doing a dance involving a gesture of brushing dust off of one’s shoulders. (See it here.

The video which was a collaboration between Douyin and seven museums (Hunan Museum, National Museum of China, Guangdong Museum, Shanxi Museum, Shanxi History Museum, Zhejiang Museum and Nanjing Museum), is an encouraging sign that Chinese museums are developing something of a sense of humor, and also that they are finding new ways to generate public engagement.

Beyond its pure entertainment value, the video was actually a call to action as part of a trans-institutional marketing campaign entitled “Hey Fantastic Museums,” [translation mine] 嗯奇妙博物馆, which used the Douyin platform to appeal to museum fans all over China to upload 15-second videos about their favorite artifacts and share them with their friends. Douyin is a short-video sharing app which uses filters in a similar way to Snapchat, known as TikTok abroad.[xii]

The platform works through facial recognition technology allowing users to cut and paste videos of themselves into different live, interactive backgrounds. Participants in the contest hammed it up in front of the camera, which through the magic of video matting technology, placed them into interactive video scenes of different museums around China. The technology is such that when the user moved around, the background would move accordingly so that they appeared to be actually visiting the museum in person. One user described it as a way to avoid having to squeeze oneself onto the subway but to still be able to visit Hall 18, of the China National Museum—the well-known gallery of diplomatic gifts. Other features allowed users to place different artifacts within their own environment through AR, for instance, the Bronze Asoka Reliquary Stupa阿育王塔图像from the Zhejiang Museum, which can magically appear floating over the your office cubicle, or spinning on top of your dog’s head—a kind of filter which can be applied to the user’s chosen reality.[xiii]

But not everyone was happy with the museum’s appeal to younger viewers; Chen Lusheng, the deputy director of the National Museum of China stated bluntly that, “Douyin is using its technological gimmickry to rob these cultural treasures of their dignity, and the result is a low level of technology which is not even worth mentioning.”[xiv] Though this righteousness over the loss of dignity of the artifacts is somewhat misplaced, Chen was right in saying that work borrows heavily from the American film, Night at the Museum, and is in fact, also quite derivative of previous videos by the National Palace Museum in Taipei has long been “anthropomorphizing its collection” with the help of the Taiwanese 3D animation studio Digimax. This tempest in a ceremonial bronze vessel, however, reveals a tension within the museum world of how to appeal to younger viewers without upsetting the old guard.


Third-Party Apps: Baidu Positions Itself as a Digital Guardian of Heritage

Launched only a year after the Google Arts & Culture platform in 2012, the Baidu Baike Digital Museum Project, aimed to allow virtualized visiting of institutions all over China and has now expanded its soft power reach outside of China to several sites in Europe. The project involves 239 museums, most are Chinese with a few global institutions which has attracted 86 million visitors—and represents an important step for Chinese audiences to access art in their countries and around the world.

Baidu Digital Museum Project
Baidu Digital Museum Project

The Baidu Baike Digital Museum Project (BBDMP for short) offers an experience which is structured through museums. For instance, the “Hangzhou Museum” page features a selection of objects and tombstone labels. The bulk of the site seems to function more like a catalogue of museums and their objects reflecting the state’s interest in objects and numbers, focusing on breadth over depth, yet a select group of museums and heritage sites offers a more in-depth experience. Yet some “digital museums” function more like exhibitions than catalogues, for instance, the Gaudi Museum, which focuses on La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (viewable here), a collaboration with the Gaudí Asia-Pacific Research Institute (China) and the Gaudí World Congress (Spain). Clicking onto the “360” button leads the viewer to a slightly-less functional version of Google Street View, with clickable videos where two Spanish experts explain different aspects of the church. Some of their explanations are interesting, others less so. The videos could benefit from higher production standards as they were obviously made with a hand-held camera and there was often issues sound bleeding or booms showing up in the frame. But the exhibition does feature a relatively pleasant user experience including a stylishly-illustrated architectural timeline. A section entitled “The Genius of Gaudi,” is perhaps the most informative, featuring a slideshow of his architectural masterpieces and architectural drawings with engaging content about Gaudi’s use of paraboloid shapes, and natural forms including leaves, amoebas, and cells. Another section on cultural influences from the East explores his relationship with Spanish sinologist Toda.

Baidu Chateau Fontainbleau Digital Museum
Baidu Chateau Fontainbleau Digital Museum

In 2018, Baidu “virtualized” another important monument for Chinese audiences—Chateau Fontainebleau, which was chosen for the high volume of visitor numbers (25% of Fontainebleau’s visitors are Chinese). This particular “digital museum” is best accessed on mobile phone. (Just scan the QR code in the advertisement in this article). Viewers can wander around the grounds and through the ornately-paneled halls of the palace imagining the goings-on of Napoleon and the French royals which came before him.

Baidu Chateau Fontainbleau Digital Museum VR Tour
Baidu Chateau Fontainbleau Digital Museum VR Tour

In addition to this, Baidu has also released a virtual tour of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris viewable with VR goggles via Baidu’s Baike Museums mini program on WeChat (See it here), with projects planned in Germany, Austria and Mexico, and a finally a virtual museum of Spanish Pilgrimage route Camino de Santiago—the selection of this pilgrimage “route” fitting nicely into the Belt and Road logic.

These virtual tours, though aimed at a Chinese audience, could help extend China’s soft power abroad through positioning Baidu as a guardian of culture—a good-will gesture which may help add some shine to the tarnished image of the Chinese tech industry.

In addition to this international outreach, Baidu has also taken up the gauntlet of cultural preservation at home enabling “virtual red tourism” through the BBDMP version of the Yangjialing Revolutionary site—famous as the home of Mao from 1938-1943, where he lived in cave dwellings and where he delivered his famous Yan’an talks on art and culture or in the stilted words of the website text: “Blow the horn of advanced art and literature in Yan’an.” The site offers a convenient viewing experience for both fervent nationalists and anyone with a morbid curiosity in CCP history (See it here).

Baidu’s digital heritage initiative has also spawned as separate “AI Museum Project”—part of a cooperation agreement signed in 2017 with the State Administration of Culture and Heritage (SACH)—which involves more virtual museums but also the introduction of intelligent robot docents. Baidu has rolled out a fleet of service robots at the Hunan Museum and other institutions, who use AI and machine learning to answer the questions of visitors and provide interpretation. (For more on robot guides see the section “Internet Plus, Visitor Tracking, Upgrading the Visitor Experience and Increasing Surveillance,” in this article.)

Baidu Digital Museum Project Terracotta Warriors
Baidu Digital Museum Project Terracotta Warriors

Perhaps the most impressive element of this project is the use of AR at the famed archaeological site—the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor. The “AI Museum” of the terracotta warriors can be accessed in a roundabout way through the Baidu mobile phone app,[xv] with visitors on site using the app to obtain another layer of interpretation. With 20-Megapixel Ultra HD resolution and panoramic film technology, the virtual tour offers an impressive view of the warriors buried in the first and third pits. Visitors use the AR function to scan the scene in front of them, where different “trigger points” cause didactics and animations to pop up—such as diagrams of the overall layout of the tomb or the different strategies used in warfare. [xvi] Another interesting feature in the app allows users to envision what the warriors looked like before their colors faded due to oxidization—apparently upon being unearthed, the sculptures were drained of color in less than four minutes.[xvii] Another trigger point calls up didactics and diagrams of Qin Shihuang’s chariot, teaching visitors about the wonders of Qin-Era engineering. [xviii]

Baidu Terracotta Warriors AI Museum
Baidu Terracotta Warriors AI Museum
Baidu Digital Museum Project Terracotta Warriors
Baidu Digital Museum Project Terracotta Warriors

Other Third-Party Apps

What Baidu has been able to accomplish with its institutional partners, perhaps offers a model moving forward for other institutions, especially those that don’t have the resources to produce high-quality virtual tours on their own. But Baidu is certainly not the only technology company interested in working with cultural content. Given the growth of the tourism industry in recent years, we are seeing a burgeoning of dedicated tourism apps which also provide their own dedicated guides to various museums and heritage sites. For instance, the VART app showcases several online virtual exhibitions mostly of Old Masters or Chinese traditional painting alongside information and ticket purchasing for art museums in 13 Chinese cities. Other apps such as iMuseum, Art in the City, iDaily Museum and Kan Zhanlan 看展览offer similar services, with the focus being on sharing opinions with other users and previewing exhibitions before an IRL (in real life) visit, while apps such as Smart Museum Audio Guide and Sanmaoyou, a mini-program in WeChat 三毛游景点讲解 are more focused on tourism and on-site usage with downloadable digital guides to both popular attractions and landmarks. For instance, Sanmaoyou features destinations such as the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City and the Beijing Capital Museum with downloadable guides for as little as 15 RMB. The quality of the interpretation in the Forbidden City is much higher than that provided by the typical museum audio guide including entertaining anecdotes how about the cats which reside in the former palace. (Apparently, some cats were descendants of the feline familiars of the emperor, while others were merely strays who were adopted in—in any case, in keeping with recent trends in surveillance, all cats have been given names and IDs so their numbers and movements can be tracked.)

A Flagship Institution for Digital Integration: Case Study the Palace Museum

As with China’s special economic zones, certain high-level state institutions can become laboratories for musicological practice receiving funding and support to embark on ambitious initiatives which can serve as examples for the not only the domestic but the global museum industry. The Palace Museum has become this kind of “flagship” museum and with 17 million visitors a year in 2018, its successes are widely visible, making it an important pillar of domestic and international soft power. The museum’s relatively few exhibition halls and scant interpretive material also make it a good candidate for the delivery of interpretation through a museum guide app framework.

A Jump Start on Digitization Lead to the Swift Creation of Numerous VR and 360 Virtual Experiences

As early as 1998, the Palace Museum began working on digitizing its collection and to date has digitized 1/3 of its almost two million objects. The Museum ramped up its digitization efforts in 2003, when it founded the Institute for Digitization of the Palace Museum Heritage, with teams composed of photographers, videographers and groups dedicated to digital resources, digital display, technical applications research, and intellectual property working groups.

Once digitized, items the collection found practical applications in both the museum’s merchandise, but also its digital content including a series of seven commissioned VR experiences, the first of which launched in 2003. Through the magic of VR “Forbidden City—Palace of the Emperor”紫禁城•天子的宫殿 gave viewers a complete view of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, using material from the previously completed 3D scans and architectural modeling. Other Palace Museum VR creations included a VR tour of a Jingdezhen archaeological site[xix] [xx], and tours of various buildings including Lingzhao Pavilion 灵沼轩, Juanqinzhai 倦勤斋 (Retirement Lodge) available here) and the Duanmen Digital Museum 端门数字博物馆 which is also accessible through a Wechat Mini-program. The Duanmen Digital Museum was not only available online but also as a digital exhibition held within the museum grounds which helped compensate for the fact that the Duanmen hall would be closed for renovations. The exhibition consisted of a “theatre” area featuring a VR simulation of the hall, and an interactive area featuring digital interactives, including a so-called “cabinet of curiosities,” with rotating 3D scans of various artifacts similar to the ArtLens Wall at Cleveland Museum of Art. The exhibition also featured digital images illustrating different types of palace apparel and interactives which taught viewers about the dishes favored by Empress Dowager Cixi. After learning about the cooking techniques and ingredients, users were given souvenir recipes—a clever touch, which extended learning beyond the exhibition hall and into the home.  Several of these digital experiences actually traveled to other cities which helped spread the brand of the museum far beyond the capital. Currently, three of the museum’s buildings are visible on the virtual section of the museum’s website V故宫, where VR can be experienced at home through the use of a headset and a special VR API-capable web browser or through browsing the website via mobile phone with a cardboard VR headset.

In addition to the virtual section of the Website, another section 全景故宫 features a 3D tour of the central courtyard where the Hall of Supreme Harmony is located.

In addition to virtualizing architectural highlights, the Palace Museum has also created a number of fairly successful virtual tours of its artifacts, for both touring exhibitions and permanent galleries—for instance, the treasures gallery—a collection of crowns, jewels and other fanciful objects and the newly-refurbished clock gallery—which up until January 2019, was still languishing the same state of disrepair as when I first viewed it in 1999. Now the clock gallery has been stylishly remodeled and the virtual tours on the museum’s website reflect these new efforts. (See it here.)

Virtual Clock Gallery at the Forbidden City
Virtual Clock Gallery at the Forbidden City

The website virtual tour has a relatively smooth user interface with high-resolution images of individual objects. As an example, while viewing “Beauty Unites Us: Chinese Art from the Vatican,” we can wander through the exhibition halls zooming in on different objects, such as a bizarre, ornate candelabra where the stem is composed of a winged dragon haughtily holding a globe in his hands. The dragon is simultaneously breathing four more dragons from his fiery maw. These dragons form the arms of the candelabra which support the candles. (See it here.).

Virtual Clock Gallery at the Forbidden City

The didactics explain that the base of the candelabra represents the body of Jesus, the wick of the candle his soul, and the flames of the candle, his spirt. The fascinating question of who created such a fanciful object and what the church thought of representing Christianity through Eastern symbols is sadly left out. These virtual tours are also available through an app Palace Museum Exhibitions [translation mine] 故宫展览 (through app stores), in VR format via the website, and the Palace Museum Official WeChat accounts which feature virtual tours but with no VR mode.

As we can see from these numerous examples, the Palace Museum—this laboratory of digital experimentation has created a truly-remarkable amount of VR and digital content whilst simultaneously exploring different graphic aesthetics, presentation modes, and delivery channels. It, however, did not stop at merely trying to replicate the onsite experience, creating a whole suite of apps which use more fantastical modes of representation and games in order to pique the interest of the offsite/online audience.

Palace Museum App Suite: Different Apps for Different Demographics

Beginning in 2013, the Palace Museum, collaborating with both tech (Tencent) and cultural entities (China Academy of Fine Arts Digital Media Studio), began to produce a number of surprisingly-good apps, a total of nine to date, which offer a smooth user experience, a refined graphic style, and interesting content. The first app to be launched was 12 Beauties, which explores the Qing Dynasty genre painting of “shinu hua”—idealized portraits of women painted for an audience of largely male admirers. Looking past the element of “male gaze” in the naming of the app (after all this was before “me-too”), we find that the app allows viewers to immerse themselves inside the world of palace life with 360 interactive views and close-ups of select objects from the museum’s collection. In fact, many of the apps created by the museum focus on a sensual enjoyment of the beauty of the collection—allowing viewers to casually soak in the ideas and aesthetics of the palace without the elbows and megaphones of the tourist stampede.

12 Beauties app created by the Palace Museum
12 Beauties app created by the Palace Museum

Another app Palace Museum Every Day 每日故宫allows viewers to casually explore the collection through a kind of calendar-based app which features an artifact each day, with high-res images and didactics, plus note taking and sharing functions. Users looking for a more active learning experience can download, Auspicious Symbols of the Forbidden City 紫禁城祥瑞 which guides the viewer through the collection in a more directed fashion.

Auspicious Symbols of the Forbidden City app
Auspicious Symbols of the Forbidden City app

Done in a tasteful muted palette, like most of the palace museum apps, it uses the Forbidden City as a backdrop for cartoon animated animals such as dragons, and phoenixes endearing characters rendered in a refined style (not the clunky graphics found in Chinese mainstream games or cartoons such as Pleasant Sheep 喜洋洋). The user first selects a symbol—let’s say a dragon—and then is presented with items of the collection which pertain to the selected animal, for instance, a “hongshan” jade dragon from the Neolithic Era or a blue and white Yuan Dynasty vase with a dragon pattern crawling across its shiny surface. Meanwhile clicking on the Phoenix—an auspicious symbol for brides—sends the reader into an exploration of the wedding rituals of the palace. Created specifically for children, the Emperor for a Day皇帝的一天 app features a colorful animation style which takes visitors on a romp through the Forbidden City with a baby lion prompting them to tackle a series of challenges which pertain to life within the palace. Upon completing the challenges, the player collects different artifacts. As we have seen with the Hangzhou Kiln Museum app, “gamification” can be a powerful pedagogical tool.

Emperor for a Day app
Emperor for a Day app

The apps created by the palace museum also vary along the public/private spectrum. Some encourage private experiences and contemplation of the artifacts as an experience in itself, completely walled off from the “in real life” (IRL) experience of visiting the Forbidden City, while others such as Palace Community 故宫社区Promote social interaction with certain functions (information about exhibitions etc.) which encourage the visitor to visit in person. Palace Community is sort of like a “sim” palace where participants can build their own grand residence and visit the houses of other users. This suite of apps is unique among museum-commissioned apps in China in that it seeks to create a “community of culture-lovers” rather than act as a shop, ticket sales channel or museum guide. In this sense, the Palace Museum remains relatively unique, but if given the resources, other Chinese museums may be able to pursue similar strategies.

Palace Museum: Multiple Channels for Methods for Youth Outreach

Palace Museum WeChat stickers
Palace Museum WeChat stickers

Beyond these apps, the Palace Museum has tried various other means to reach out to younger viewers, for instance, through animated GIFs—actually stickers which can be used within the WeChat platform. These “stickers” include images of emperors wearing sunglasses with the word “super” in the background, or emperors with lasers shooting out of their fingers with words, “I am a ray of light.” Other initiatives include commissioning popstars to make thematic songs about traditional subjects. Though this may seem like an ailing church hiring a Christian rock band to draw the next generation into the pews, it’s a remarkable way to bring the museum into the minds of younger non-visitors. Teaming up with music streaming platform QQ Music and tech giant Tencent, the Palace Museum launched the youth talent initiative NEXT IDEA, which resulted in a newly-commissioned song by Jackson Yee[xxi]—a willowy young singer with a kind of feigned solemnity, a member of the Chinese boy band TFboys. Yi’s slightly-syrupy folk-pop tune, “Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains” inspired by a Song Dynasty Painting, got no less than 34 million plays.

All of this content, social media campaigns and sales are streamed out through the museum’s Official WeChat account which has 10 million followers. The services of the Palace Museum Official Account are grouped into several different categories: “have a look” 看一看, “browse” 逛一逛, and “get together” 聚一聚. Within these menu options one can find the basic exhibition information, virtual tours 玩转故宫, very-detailed digital guides to be used onsite including interpretation about the architecture, the location of the bathrooms, exits, concessions, book shops, ticket counters, and the individual exhibitions with audio and text explanations. There are also online WeChat stores—the Forbidden City Cultural Products Store [translation mine] 故宫博物馆文创店 and the Forbidden City WeChat Store [translation mine] 故宫微店, selling a vast array of products, everything from 200 RMB Palace Museum-branded lipsticks to Qing Dynasty divans for 118,000 RMB.

Online stores accessible through Taobao (web and mobile) and WeChat (mobile only) are bringing important revenue streams to Chinese museums, and recent government policy has been strongly encouraging museums to find ways to get more out of their intellectual property, perhaps in a bid to prepare for future sustainability. Starting in 2014, the government made a series of new pronouncements which made it legal for museums to engage in these kinds of commercial activities, which created a growing momentum towards museum merchandizing. In 2016, the government announced that it had entered the era of “wenchuang” 文创 short for “wenhua chuangyi chanpin” 文化创意产品 basically merchandize or derivative products which employ art or culture as an inspiration and are often based on the museum’s own collection. In 2017 SACH announced that for the 13th Five Year Plan beginning in 2020, their aim was to establish 50 new cultural product brands, with ten different bases for research and development.[xxii] Chinese museums have jumped headlong into this “wenchuang” market with major museums such as the Suzhou Museum, the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, the Guangdong Museum, the Shanghai Museum, and the National Museum of China which launched a collaboration with Alibaba to create an IP platform. (Note: the British Museum which also collaborated with Alibaba on its wildly-successful online store on T-Mall.) With online sales of 1.5 Billion RMB, the Palace Museum store is by far the leader in sales and product development in China with over 10,000 unique cultural products. Certain products such as the Museum’s branded lipstick inspired a frenzy of e-commerce sales (900,000 units). The lipstick was described by online shoppers as a “wanghong” 网红—meaning something which has reached the status of an internet celebrity. The Palace Museum actually has no less than four online stores in operation, which sell somewhat different selections of products, several operating independently. The products have been popular with the post-80s and post-90s generations which make up the largest demographic of the museum (64% of visitors are between 20-40), and museum’s push into the digital is an obvious response to the needs of this changing demographic.

Challenges Fits and Starts: Disparity in the User Experiences of Different User Interfaces

Researching this article involved a careful parsing of information—an attempt to separate glowing press releases trumpeting various institutional accomplishments from the actual user experience. For instance, the Guangdong Museum has made an app called Guangdong Museum at Your Fingertips [translation mine] 指尖粤博 which is supposed to facilitate both online and offline visits. It launched on the app store in 2017 but has only had a few hundred downloads and less than three ratings on the apple store (one of them was mine). The app frequently times out and fails to load most of the critical functions. The Guangdong Museum website also had serious problems, with the text all crunched together and all the graphics clustered in the middle of the page as if the page was only optimized for mobile and not laptop viewing.

This was quite discouraging given Guangdong Museum’s tech leadership aspirations. I searched for mini-programs in WeChat but found little of interest. It was only when I happened upon the museum’s Official WeChat Account or “gongzhonghao”公众号,[xxiii] that I was able to explore all the functionality that I the director of the museum had been talking about[xxiv]. All of the digital services were buried within the Official Account, which though somewhat slow to load,[xxv] was still quite rich in information. The official account featured an audio guide in Chinese and English with artifact descriptions which could be played in both languages. The official account also included virtual exhibitions which could be navigated through the phone with nifty 3D maps, but the navigation worked in fits and starts so that while trying to zoom up on a wall text, one found oneself flying across the exhibition hall towards the opposite end of the hall. The artifacts and texts did not have separate pop-up windows as they do in other Chinese Museum guide apps and several of the in-app virtual exhibitions threw up 404 errors. This is obviously a work in progress as are many of the technological initiatives in Chinese museums because with a booming tech economy, it can be difficult for state museums which have limited abilities to raise wages to hold onto qualified tech support staff. This problem is recognized by the industry, Li Yuejin, the director of the exhibition department at the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution, has written that museums need to readjust their staffing plans accordingly, not only focus on recruiting history and archeology majors. [xxvi]

Internet Plus, Visitor Tracking, Upgrading the Visitor Experience and Increasing Surveillance

Last year, while visiting the MPT Expo in Fuzhou—a trade fair where museum vendors exhibit the latest in digital technology alongside more 1.0 technology such as mounts and dioramas—visitors were greeted by an army of little plastic robot guides zooming around the floor. This at first seemed like some window dressing, a kind of tokenistic futurism, but at the time the Hubei Provincial Museum had already installed service robots in its exhibition halls in a collaboration with Suzhou tech firm Cheetah Mobile. The robot acted as docents offering explanations on Yuan Dynasty porcelain and but also offered general guidance to guests, answering over 7,000 questions from visitors, while simultaneously gathering vital information about their behavior and interests which could be useful for both front and back of house staff. The robot, (See it here: is referred to as Xiao Bao (little Cheetah) though official full name is Cheetah Secretary [translation mine] 豹小秘. Basically a roving pedestal with an iPad as a face, Cheetah Secretary can guide visitors to the museum’s various amenities. Though it was designed as a “guide” it seems that many visitors could not get past the novelty factor—children standing and gaping at the robot at it while their parents took photos. It certainly does not replace the human contact and intuitiveness of a volunteer guide or docent, but when the Xiao Bao did a trial run at the Guangdong Museum over half of the visitors said they would be willing to pay for its services. The benefit for Cheetah mobile is that their product is associated with prestigious institutions, the museum can save on staff and volunteers once visitors become used to the technology, but more important is building an understanding of visitor behavior, their interests, favorite objects, and information to build heat maps, which is of course important for any museum, but in China, this focus on data gathering has been bolstered by the surveillance objectives of the state. For instance, Yunquan Yi writes that a push towards “Internet Plus Tourism” required all 4A rated tourist sites to provide free Wi-Fi, smart guides, electronic explanations, on-line booking, and information-[gathering] coverage as part of the 13th Five Year plan which ends in 2020.[xxvii] In his analysis of the Palace Museum, Yi describes the museum’s strategies of information gathering through the use of different channels: the first being person-to-person interaction (exit surveys, comments from staff, museum guards etc. ), the second, tracking user feedback on third-party platforms (for instance tourism and culture discussion platforms, social media platforms etc.), and the last being tracking media reporting.

In addition, user behavior is also being tracked by on-site hardware, for instance in open-air sites, such as the Yuan Ming Yuan Palace in Beijing, drones are used to help monitor visitor flow.[xxviii] Meanwhile, the Internet of Things (IoT), can be used to track visitor movement at indoor sites, where ibeacon technology (the apple system which allows apps to track where the visitor is in the museum), is used to generate heat maps which are useful for both curators and security staff as well. (The Hunan Museum App actually displays these heatmaps to the viewer.) This information could, in theory, be used by robot docents to guide visitors to the “less-visited” parts or “dead zones” of the museum to reduce crowding, [xxix] but is also useful for the visitor to guide them to the appropriate didactics for the artifacts which they are standing in front of.

Guangdong Museum director, Wei Jun has emphasized the role of data gathering in upgrading visitor experience saying that by optimizing the Museum’s use of RFID and iBeacon technology to improve the positioning to accurately record visitor trajectories, the Museum can make informed decisions about the location of amenities and the contents of the exhibitions.[xxx] RFID chips can also be placed on artifacts to reduce the likeliness of theft. As early as 2009, the Nanjing Museum enlisted the help of British RFID company Fortecho Solutions[xxxi] in protecting the treasures of King Tutankhamun for their exhibition “The Golden King and Pharaoh” [translation mine] 黄金国王和大法老王. If any of the objects were touched, the staff in the security control room would hear an alarm sound and the on-site security guards would be notified by pagers, while a warning sound in the exhibition hall would signal to the visitor that they should not be using their hands to explore the mysteries of Egyptian culture.[xxxii] Today, the treasures of the Palace Museum are currently under the close watch of 3,000 CCTV cameras equipped with facial recognition capabilities, “How can we make sure that visitors who might have evil ideas could threaten these treasures?,” asks Palace Museum Director Shan Jixiang. Clearly, the palace is still haunted by the ghosts of its previous inhabitants.[xxxiii]

A Fetishization of Technology

Though technology has been used effectively in many cases to improve many critical functions of the museum including visitor experience, sometimes the fetishization of technology over other more basic concerns such as exhibition design and storytelling—leads to dead ends. For instance, on a virtual wander through an exhibition of Korean artifacts at the Zhejiang Museum, we see lifeless images of objects in glass cases and didactics on the walls. The exhibition design is very traditional, just vitrines and didactics, the text of which cannot be read from the virtual tour. Frankly, this lackluster exhibition seems barely worth visiting in person, let alone through the distorted fisheye lens of the 3D cameras. These 360 virtual tours tend to work best when applied to architectural landmarks and outdoor heritage sites and as the technology develops, we need to continue to ask the question, “How is a virtual tour better than a traditional website in terms of visitor enjoyment, learning outcomes and immersivity?” Sometimes it seems like a case of “chariots before horses,” the basic techniques of exhibition design, narrative flow, thematic coherence, and digital interactives still have a long way to go, but because of the state focus on technology, it is difficult for museums to decouple themselves from this technological trajectory. As de Kloet writes in his discussion of the “platformization of society” “this entanglement between state and corporations appears to accelerate and intensify this process, enhancing the penetration of platform infrastructures in every sphere of life.” This tech focus is, of course, a way for museums to achieve certain benchmarks and KPIs, without really addressing the systematic problems at the root of the Chinese museum experience.

Business Opportunities

What many museums have yet to realize is that AR, VR, MR, all of these technologies, are merely vehicles, like a chariot, which can be used to take the viewer to any location. But the destination is not always clear. UK creators of multimedia digital experiences, animators, and exhibition designers could provide vital guidance in the creation and development of storylines, the overlay of themes and help improve the quality of exhibition design and graphics.

For the creators of digital content, VR and AR designers, equipment manufacturers of various kinds of smart systems for surveillance and collections management, there appear to be many opportunities. China has several expos which focus on museum technology such as the MPT Expo in Fuzhou, where not only tech providers but many of China’s most prominent museums participate with elaborate booths. There is also the Smart Museum Expo智慧博物馆in Chongqing which focuses on museum technology.

To get an idea of the demand for services of Chinese museums, the website publishes all public tenders from many of China’s state museums. For instance, a random search turned up a museum in Foshan which was looking for a vendor to help them with audience analysis and data gathering. The budget was 1 million RMB. Just searching the “Tenders” section of the website with the keyword of “VR” returns over 120 search results from museums all around China. That said, it is no simple process to get into the Chinese market as there is significant effort which goes into the pitching process which may require numerous rounds of gymnastics and vetting before any contracts are inked. Given the delicacy of managing client relationships, interested parties may look for Chinese partners who seek to collaborate with international teams. Museums, as well, who are actively looking for engaging international touring exhibitions from UK partners, will also be keen to explore offerings with digital interactive components which would make them more appealing to a younger demographic. In any case, what should become clear from this article is that we should have no illusions about Chinese museums as being pokey 1.0 sorts of institutions. How many museums in the West can create multiple VR experiences, run multiple apps and online stores at once, generating thousands of new products on a yearly basis and billions of RMB in profits?  The Palace Museum may be an outlier, but it’s an example of what can be achieved when government invests in culture in a strategic, albeit not very egalitarian way.

[i] De Kloet, Jeroen, Poell, Thomas, Zeng, Guohua and Chow, Yiu Fai, “The platformization of Chinese Society: infrastructure, governance, and practice,” Chinese Journal of Communication, 2019, 12:3, 249-256, DOI: 10.1080/17544750.2019.1644008

[ii] Creemers, R, “The Pivot in Chinese Cybergovernance. Integrating Internet Control in Xi Jinping’s China,”

China Perspectives, 2015,, p.1 (last accessed September 9, 2019,

[iii] “The use of 3D Technology in the Conservation and Repair of Cultural Artifacts,”“3D jishu zai wenwu xiufuzhong de yingyong,”“3D技术在文物修复中的应用,” (Sanxingdui Museum website), (last accessed September 10, 2019,

[iv] This side-by-side comparison is significant in that is sidesteps the problem of transparency which has dogged Chinese museums, which have in the past been known to display replicas as authentic artifacts.


[vi] The National Palace Museum in Taipei also provides allows a 72-dpi version of its images (suitable for basic on-screen viewing) to be downloaded and used directly.[vi]

[vii] The practice of making digital collections available for public use has been in practice in since the mid-aughts in the West in institutions such as the Met, the National Gallery (Washington), Los Angles County Museum of Art, the British Musem, the V&A, the British Library, and the Wellcome Collection.

[viii] The Gongzhong hao is often referred to as a public WeChat number, often by native Chinese speakers translating directly 公众号 public number.

[ix]“Using ‘smart technology’ to build the museums of the future,’” “yong ‘zhihui’dazao ‘weilai bowguan’,” “用“智慧”打造“未来博物馆, (Guangdong Museum website),“ June 29, 2015, (last accessed September 9, 2019,

[x] Slow loading on Chinese APPs appears to be a countrywide problem, not just limited to museum apps according to an article on (last accessed August 27, 2019,

[xi]“ Using Magical Technology, the Three Gorges Museum Transports You Back to Old Chongqing in the Blink of an Eye,” “Sanxia bowuguan zhe xiang heikeji, rang ni miaohui lao chongqing,” “三峡博物馆这项黑科技,让你秒回老重庆,” meiri toutiao, 每日头条, August 9, 2018, (last accessed September 7, 2019,

[xii] Note Snapchat’s introduction of Geofilters in 2014, was roughly simultaneous with another Chinese video and photo-sharing app Meipai, which became an instant hit for its ability to transform the appearances of its users. Meipai has now been eclipsed by Douyin which made an international debut as TikTok. Both TikTok and Douyin combined have over 1 billion downloads globally.

[xiii], 酷玩实验室, “New from, Virtual Cat Rearing is Already Out of Style! Now Instead We Visit Museums on the Cloud,”“laizi xueqiu fabu yu yangmao yijing out! Xianzai xingyun canguang bowuguan,” “来自雪球发布于云养猫已OUT!现在流行云参观博物馆,” May 19, 2018, (last accessed September 10, 2019,

[xiv] Liang Zhiqin, “Museums Forming an Alliance with Douyin; Is it a Form of Creativity or Humiliation?,” “bowuguan ‘lianyin’ douyin, shi chuangxin haishi mengxiu?,” “博物馆“联姻”抖音,是创新还是蒙羞?,” xinkuaibao 新快报,” August 7, 2018, (last accessed September 6, 2019

[xv] Note: for those interested to explore the museum, you need to download the Baidu app from your app store, then navigate to the Baidu Digital Museum Project 百度AI博物馆 then at the bottom of the page there are thumbnails of different museums to choose from. The Terracotta Warriors are the 6th image. The Terracotta Warriors title is on a brown background, click the button below that says在线全景游览.

[xvi] Han Hong, “The Qin Shihuang Terracotta Warriors, Digital Museum is Now Online with 20 Megapixel Definition and 360 Degree Views!,”“qin shihuang bingmayong shuzi bowuguan zhenshi shangxian 200 yi xiangsu 360 du quanjing,”“秦始皇兵马俑数字博物馆正式上线 200亿像素360度全景,” Wen Hui Bao,, 文汇报, May 19, 2017, (last accessed September 6, 2019,

[xvii] Han Hong, “The Qin Shihuang Terracotta Warriors, Digital Museum is Now Online with 20 Megapixel Definition and 360 Degree Views!,”“qin shihuang bingmayong shuzi bowuguan zhenshi shangxian 200 yi xiangsu 360 du quanjing,”“秦始皇兵马俑数字博物馆正式上线 200亿像素360度全景,” Wen Hui Bao,, 文汇报, May 19, 2017, (last accessed September 6, 2019,

[xviii] Han Hong, “The Qin Shihuang Terracotta Warriors, Digital Museum is Now Online with 20 Megapixel Definition and 360 Degree Views!,”“qin shihuang bingmayong shuzi bowuguan zhenshi shangxian 200 yi xiangsu 360 du quanjing,”“秦始皇兵马俑数字博物馆正式上线 200亿像素360度全景,” Wen Hui Bao,, 文汇报, May19, 2017, (last accessed September 6, 2019,

[xix] Other works in the series include: Three Great Halls三大殿, Hall of Mental Cultivation, 养心殿, Juanqinzhai (Retirement Lodge), 倦勤斋, Lingzhao Pavilion, 灵沼轩, and the Watch Tower, or Corner Building角楼.

[xx] Commissioned for the exhibition was “Imperial Porcelains from the Reigns of Hongzhi and Zhengde in the Ming Dynasty: A Comparison of Porcelains from the Imperial Kiln Site at Jingdezhen and Imperial Collection of the Palace Museum,”“故宫明代成化御窑瓷器对比展与明清御窑瓷器考古新成果展”.

[xxi]Cao Feitie, Peng Yun and Xu Ke, “‘Internet Plus,’ How to Make the Palace Museum Artifacts Come Alive,”“ ‘wenhua +’  ruhe rang gugong wenwu ‘huo’ qilai,”“文化+”如何让故宫文物“活”起来,” pintu 品途, December 28, 2018, (last accessed September 6, 2019,

[xxii] “New Policies Encouraging Museums to Enter the Age of Cultural Products of a Cultural Products Spring or future,” “zhengci tuidong bowuguan yingyong jinru wenchuang shidai wenchuang chuntian huozhe weilai,”“政策推动博物馆运营进入文创时代 文创春天或来临,” July 17, 2018,, (last accessed September 6, 2019,

[xxiii] The so-called “gongzhong hao” is often referred to as a “public” “WeChat number,” by native Chinese speakers translating directly 公众号 public number. It is the same thing as the official WeChat Feed or Official Account.

[xxiv] “Using Smart Technology to Build the Museums of the Future,” “yong ‘zhihui’ dazao ‘weilai bowuguan’,”“用“智慧”打造“未来博物馆,”, Guangdong Museum official website, June, 29, 2015, (last accessed September 6, 2019,

[xxv] Slow loading on Chinese apps appears to be a country-wide problem, not just limited to museum apps according to an article on (last accessed August 27, 2019,

[xxvi] Opium War Museum, “The Museum + ‘the Internet’ + ‘Permanent Exhibition’=what?,” “bowuguan+ ‘hulianwang+zhanlan chenlie’=?,” 博物馆+“互联网+展览陈列”=?,” March 7, 2017,, 弘博网, (last accessed September 6, 2019,

[xxvii] Yi Yunquan, “Research on the Internet-based Cultural Tourism Transformation Strategy —Taking the ‘Digital Palace Museum,’ Online Program as an Example,” 2018 4th International Conference on Innovative Development of E-commerce and Logistics (ICIDEL 2018) Published by CSP © 2018 the Authors (last accessed August 29, 2019, (last accessed September 12, 2019,

[xxviii] H. Sun, J. Li and J. Qiu, “Innovative and applied research on big data platforms of smart heritage,” SPRS Annals of the Photogrammetry, Remote Sensing and Spatial Information Sciences, Volume II-5/W3, 2015

25th International CIPA Symposium 2015, 31 August – 04 September 2015, Taipei, Taiwan,, (last accessed September 12, 2019,

[xxix] Baidu has also embarked in robot docents as part of their AI museum initiative.

[xxx]“Using Smart Technology to Build the Museums of the Future,” “yong ‘zhihui’ dazao ‘weilai bowuguan’,”“用“智慧”打造“未来博物馆,”, Guangdong Museum official website, June 29, 2015, (last accessed September 6, 2019,

[xxxi]Note: The original article here mentions a firm as ISIS now rebranded as Fortecho for obvious reasons.

[xxxii] “RFID Technology Protecting the Pharoah’s Treasures,” “RFID xianshen baohu falao baocang,”“RFID现身保护法老宝藏,” (Nanjing Museum official Website), June 30, 2019, (last accessed September 12, 2019,

[xxxiii]“Beijing’s Palace Museum building smart network with 5G, IoT and AI,”, March 19, 2018, (last accessed September 12, 2019,