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Forbidden City: A Breathtaking Treasure Trove for Families

Reviewed by Wendy Irvine


ForbiddenCity_VMFA4To appreciate VMFA’s newest exhibit, the Forbidden City: Imperial Treasures from the Palace Museum, Beijing, one has to move one’s mind to a land far, far away and simultaneously step back in time to the mid-1300s. Got that? And, of course, one must also keep in mind that this collection existed in a city that was entirely closed off to not only the outside world, but also to the Chinese common-class itself, a city so sacred it was a no-go for the riff-raff.

That’s my long-winded way of saying that this treasure trove is breathtaking on a number of levels.

A bit of quick background. Twenty-four emperors of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasties (1644-1911) lived in the Forbidden City, which according to legend, had 9,999.5 rooms. The Forbidden City has immense halls for wedding banquets, holiday celebrations, and honoring visiting dignitaries. There are a dozen opulent palaces and beautiful bridges ornamented with carved torches and so forth. You’ll see a mammoth marble relief of nine dragons playing with pearls, wondrous Chinese architecture, Chinese paintings, a jade gallery, and so, so much more. We’re talking a true marvel.

But fly the family to China? Not on my budget. So thank you VMFA for becoming the first art museum in the United States to establish such an extensive collaborative project with the Palace Museum in Beijing. This is also the first time VMFA will host an exhibition of Chinese art directly from China.

My husband, twin sons, and I toured Forbidden City, VMFA’s collection
of nearly 200 artifacts, and here’s a list of my favorites. Feel free to devise
a scavenger hunt based on my likes:ForbiddenCity_VMFA5

  • A dagger with a pearl handle and inlaid precious jewels including rubies (considered a protective stone).
  • A flute with dragons and clouds.
  • A wall-sized scroll depicting the Forbidden City.
  • A set of sixteen chimes looming ten feet up and made of jade would be played with sixteen impressive bronze bells that each make a different note when struck. (The bells were cast with dragons and clouds.)
  • A throne and screen with dragons and clouds.
  • Wine cup and saucer – with an opulent color scheme.
  • An exquisite fruit container that stands over two feet high and has gold dragons winding their way up it.
  • A silk robe depicting nine dragons and twelve imperial symbols considered to be the highest ranking garment in the culture’s existence.
  • A hairpin that Elsa would kill for with a peony and a butterfly that are symbols of nobility and happy matrimony.

So does this amazing exhibit call to families with kids? A resounding yes to these groups: kids around thirteen who have an interest in Chinese history, kids who have studied Chinese history, or want to impress their teacher by inquiring about extra credit; tweens and teens who have an interest in musical instruments from other cultures.

At VMFA’s companion exhibit, Beyond the Walls, kids enjoy hands-on activities.
At VMFA’s companion exhibit, Beyond the Walls, kids enjoy hands-on activities.

Families with younger kids will enjoy Forbidden City, but will probably want to spend a more time at VMFA’s companion exhibit, Beyond the Walls, a hands-on experience in VMFA’s Art Education Center near the Altria Galleries (home of Forbidden City). The interactive exhibition gives everyone the chance to explore daily life in imperial China with a peek into the home of a merchant-class family who lived in the 18th century.

My 11-year-olds had a good time here and we all agreed that kids about four and up (and their grownups!) will enjoy the activities too. Visitors can write Chinese characters on a touch screen and design personal, virtual seals. There will be opportunities to unroll and view reproduction scrolls like those featured in Forbidden City and in VMFA’s East Asian collection, or play traditional musical instruments and games.

For kids, however, giving context and background is the necessary foundation to making a museum tour a raging success. Having said that, my boys have studied this period of Chinese history and were taken with the swords, daggers, and ceremonial suits of armor (duh), but walked right past the robes, silk scrolls, clocks, and you get the picture.

Here’s what I suggest: Bring your smart phone and headphones to the tour and use the VMFA’s free WiFi. Let the kids listen to the VMFA’s free Forbidden City audio tour. They’ll hear great information as they progress from piece to piece and will love using technology along the way. Or take the tour together at home on your computer before coming to Forbidden City.

My second suggestion. Show your teens one, or all, of these movies before you visit the exhibit:

  • The Forbidden City (1918), a fictional film about a Chinese emperor and an American.
  • The Last Emperor (1987), a biographical film about Puyi, was the first feature film authorized by the government of the People’s Republic of China to be filmed in the Forbidden City.
  • Marco Polo broadcast in the early 1980s was filmed inside the Forbidden City. (Note that the present Forbidden City was not in existence in the Yuan dynasty when Marco Polo met Kublai Khan.)

Lastly, for kids of all ages, that museum scavenger hunt I mentioned earlier is often just the ticket to capturing the kids’ attention. But don’t forget one of the most important parts of the hunt – brownies at the end in VMFA’s Best Café.

Forbidden City: Imperial Treasures from the Palace Museum, Beijing is a ticketed event and runs through January 15, 2015. If you invest in the VFMA family membership for $85, not only do you get free admission to world-class exhibits like Forbidden City, but you’re also privy to member preview events, special member events, free parking, discounts on classes, concerts, dining, and more. In the meantime, tickets to Forbidden City can be purchased online: $20 for adults; $10 for seven to seventeen; and free for kids under six. For tickets, visit VFMA.


Wendy irvine is a family travel writer who recently relocated to the East Coast and a regular contributor to Trip Advisor and Expedia online, as well as local and national magazines. She homeschools her twin boys and lives with one foot in RVA and the other in Atlanta. Visit for more from Wendy on the reality of family travel.

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