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VMFA’s Terracotta Army Exhibit Impresses – and Transports

The warriors towered over everyone in the gallery. Resting only on understated pedestals, each terracotta structure demanded a rapt attention, and every person in the room obeyed. Each spectator entered the final room of Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China identically – hushed, astounded, and mesmerized.

The newest exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts comes in three parts: the legacy of the First Emperor, the history of the Qin dynasty, and the terracotta warriors themselves. Each successive room builds on the last, culminating in the spectacle of ten life-size, expressive, and completely unique terracotta figures. Though the warriors have been the most advertised part of the exhibit by far, I did not find myself rushing through the rooms to reach them at the end.

The layout of the exhibit dissuades visitors from sprinting to the last room and then hitting up the gift shop for an adorable terracotta warrior-style bottle opener or a copious variety of authentic chopsticks. It is obvious that the curator, Li Jian, took time to build a story.

The educational component of this exhibit is vital. Bring your reading glasses. The wordiness, however, is important. Each fact on the wall or timeline on a plaque is backed up by an artifact. Nothing is out of context. I found myself frequently asking, “Why did they feel the need to include this large, clay tube? What is the artistic value?” Immediately, the exhibit gave me an answer – the tubing served as ventilation in the vast tunnels of the first emperor’s underground quarters. Without this tubing, the warriors would not have been possible.

This makes the exhibit family-, student-, and date-friendly. Everyone, even the most well-read of the history buffs, will learn something. In fact, the exhibit serves as a welcome supplement to a curriculum generally lacking in the meaningful exploration of Asian culture. We all know why a standard set of weights and measures are necessary, but learn how exactly Qin Shihuang enforced his new system across his vast, agricultural empire. You may understand what the purpose behind the terracotta army was, but can you identify which figures are the highest ranking?

The exhibit is flush with facts, to be sure. But don’t let that stop you from interpreting the art for yourself. Surrounding some artifacts is an intriguing mystery; some of the most interesting-looking pieces are untitled, their purposes unknown. This encourages attendees to immerse themselves in the world of the First Emperor, a world of splendor and alluring enigma.

For younger attendees interested in learning more about the archeological feat of the terracotta army, the VMFA does not disappoint. After soaking up the history in the main gallery, the kids can proceed to the Memorial Foundation for Children Teaching Gallery. They can enjoy Dig It!, an interactive exhibit explaining the connection between art and archeology. Even young children should enjoy the fascinating finds in the main gallery. But Dig It! provides background knowledge, using two chief ingredients your child is sure to appreciate: video and dirt.

The exhibits at the VMFA always impress, but this one transports. Visit it before it leaves on March 11, 2018, because you’ll want to come back again.

For tickets to Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China, vist VMFA. Members are free, so consider investing in a VMFA membership.

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