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Terra Cotta Warriors come to life at The Children’s Museum

Indianapolis is only U.S. location for this exhibition this year

You don’t have to be a child to be captivated by the terrific exhibits currently at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. After a car ride that takes less than two hours, you’ll find yourself transported to both ancient and modern China.

The hype — of course — has been understandably centered around the “Terra Cotta Warriors: The Emperor’s Painted Army,” the special exhibit that comes directly from Shaanxi Province and is making its only 2014 U.S. appearance in nearby Indianapolis. But the accompanying show — titled “Take Me There: China” — also is a winner.

Together, the two exhibits can be enjoyed by all ages. Allow about three hours to make the most of your visit, more if you’d like to explore the rest of the world’s largest children’s museum.

Even if you’ve seen the famous life-sized warriors previously — perhaps at the Dayton Art Institute’s “Eternal China” exhibition in 1998 or even in China — you’ve never seen them showcased quite like this. The talented staff at the Children’s Museum has worked its magic and found creative ways to introduce eight of the world-famous figures as well as 120 ancient artifacts that range from a gold animal mask and ceremonial bell to what’s thought to be an earthenware “Travel Pass” for the afterlife.

“We want children to experience these things because we feel that helps them understand this history,” explained Monica Humphrey, project manager for the exhibit.

Those in our area will be especially interested in this exhibition thanks to the partnership that now exists between Wright State University and the Museum of Terracotta Soldiers and Horses of Shi-Huang-Di near Xi’an. Under the agreement, Wright State experts will go to the site to conduct research aimed at expanding the excavation and better protecting and displaying the mausoleum. The university will accept students from the Chinese museum who want to learn more about conservation, historic preservation and exhibition preparation.

Lots of interaction

The interactive show in Indianapolis has visitors busy molding and sculpting rows of miniature warriors and assembling large ones piece by piece — just as archaeologists set about doing after March 1974 when a group of farmers first discovered the clay fragments while digging a well in the countryside. Since that time, 2,000 more warriors have been found — about one-fourth of the estimated 8,000 that scholars believe were originally created to guard the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi.

Kids can don warrior armor, bang on a Chinese drum, ring a bronze bell, and see how they’d look as a terracotta warrior. The exhibit includes a re-creation of the site’s Water Garden where bronze swans and geese were uncovered. Don’t be alarmed to see one of the warriors suddenly come to life and begin walking and twirling his spear.

“The exhibit is really well done,” said Marla Harlan of Washington Twp. who headed for the Indianapolis museum recently when her niece, Nola, was in town visiting. Nola, 12, was born in China and said the huge Wall of China slide and the Chinese calligraphy were her favorite parts of the exhibit.

Short films at the beginning and end of the show transport audiences to the actual archaeological site in China.

You’ll learn about the bright paints that were originally used on the figures and see a colorful re-creation of a warrior as he might have looked when he was first made. One special head on display still has visible faded paint, a paint that typically disintegrates when archaeologists begin unearthing their discoveries.

About the warriors

Humphrey says that each of the warriors has a unique face and was hand-sculpted by artists at the command of the emperor who was only 13 years old when he ordered the construction of his tomb. The tomb site, which encompassed 20 square miles, took more than 700,000 laborers and 40 years to build.

“Our Research Lab area is all about finding the clues and using science, art and history to imagine what the tomb complex would have looked like,” explained Humphrey, who said this exhibit was the result of eight years of discussion and two years in the making. Seventeen museum staffers traveled to China to do research.

“This has been an incredible learning experience for all of us,” said Humphrey who was surprised to learn that the Emperor had created a whole civilian world as well as an army.

“Emperor Qin wanted to take his whole world with him when he died,” she said.

China today

Every four years the museum is planning to focus on a different country. This time, in connection with the terracotta warriors, it’s “Take Me There: China.”

“It’s designed to be a completely immersive experience,” explained the museum’s public relations manager Leslie Olsen. “We have two teachers here from China teaching calligraphy and music.”

In addition to experiencing live performances and demonstrations — martial arts, music, shadow puppetry — you’ll learn about subjects ranging from ancient Chinese medicine to the environment.

The adventure begins when families board a plane that eventually lands in Beijing. Once they leave the plane, kids can scurry around doing everything from donning traditional costumes in a Chinese Opera House and watching a video of a real opera to practicing the formalities involved with brewing and serving tea at a tea house.

In preparation for this exhibit, museum staff spent time in China shooting photos and video and getting to know a real Chinese family. When they returned, they re-created the homelife of an 11-year-old named Jackie, who takes visitors through three recreated dwellings: his great-grandmother’s traditional rural home, his grandparents’ newer suburban home and his parents’ modern suburban apartment — including his own bedroom.

Elyse Handel of Kettering is an early childhood educator who works at the preschool that’s housed in the Children’s Museum. Her students have a chance to explore the exhibits as part of their school day.

She said the China exhibit was especially memorable for the kids.

“As my students sat outside the different homes, they were able to make comparisons to their own,” Handel said. “They were able to connect with Jackie and relate to his lifestyle through interactive play. Every observation and finding they made helped them understand and respect the differences in the Chinese cultures and traditions to our own.”

On the day we visited, children were scurrying around the Chinese grocery store, and caring for stuffed pandas at a small replica of a panda sanctuary.

They were having great fun playing “restaurant” in the Chinese fast-food area.

“This is just unbelievable,” said Karen Overman of Whitestown, Ind., who had come with her 12-year-old granddaughter and was pretending to eat her meal with chopsticks.

“She’s made me dumplings and noodles and fish. I won’t have to cook dinner tonight!”

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