WA China Watch Digest Special!

Interview: Diana Johns on Terracotta Warriors from behind the scenes

Diana JohnsBy Wen Liu   Apr. 18, 2017

The highlight of Seattle’s connection with China now is surely the new exhibit “Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor” at the Pacific Science Center. The ten life-size statues on display, from among some 8,000 unearthed since the 1970s, are, of course, from Xi’an, this writer’s "old home," as they say. This is not, however, the first time that the Science Center showcased China. There was “Son of Heaven - Imperial Arts of China” in 1988 and “China: 7000 Years of Discovery” in 1984. So why this exhibit now? How did it come about? What is the significance of the “science” of it? For these and other behind-the-scenes questions, we have Diana Johns, VP of Exhibits at Pac Sci, who managed in her long career King Tut, Discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls, Lucy’s Legacy, Pompeii, and Race: Are We So Different among many important exhibits.

WCWD: The terracotta warriors of Xi'an have been around for many years, since at least 1979 when the world began descending upon the site of the diggings, and have been on tours around the world. Why is the exhibit at the Pacific Science Center this year, at this time?

Diana Johns: Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor has been over four years in the making. An endeavor like this takes a lot of time. The actual design and fabrication of the exhibit has been the last year and a half. When I say fabrication, I mean everything that isn’t an artifact. The timing of now is really just a function of how long it took to get the various agreements together and as well as how long the artifacts can be out of China.

WCWD: One can imagine that it took a lot of work as well as time to bring an exhibit like this to audience. How and when did this begin and whose idea was it to have this exhibit in Seattle?

Diana Johns: As mentioned above, this had been in the works for several years. Like so many big ideas, this started as a conversation between the CEO’s of Pacific Science Center and The Franklin Institute of Philadelphia. The Franklin CEO asked, “What do you think about doing an exhibit about the Terracotta Warriors?” and the rest as they say, is history. Obviously, a lot of thought, relationship building and the work of putting a brand new exhibit together followed but it really did start pretty much that simply.

WCWD: It is also clear that this exhibit is one of collaboration. Could you tell us how it all came together, the Science Center, the Franklin Institute, and most importantly, perhaps the Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum of Xi'an?

Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor. Screenshot.Diana Johns: When Pacific Science Center and The Franklin Institute agreed to partner on this project, an agreement about the allocation of responsibilities was a next step. We had to figure out who would take lead on the exhibition design, developing the educational materials, creating the story narrative, hiring the sub-contractors, etc. Our 3rd partner was the Shaanxi Cultural Heritage Promotion Center. The Promotion Center is a sort of the clearing house for all of the museums in Xi'an. Instead of our organizations having to negotiate with each individual museum containing objects we hoped to have in the exhibition, we worked through the Center instead and they handled all of the communications and paperwork with the museums. It’s a very smart, super efficient set-up.

WCWD: Talk about Xi'an, what is it like working with personnel from Xi'an?

Diana Johns: It was great. Everyone is thoroughly professional and obviously care a great deal about the objects. Xi'an is so rich in museums and there is some terrific conservation science that’s happening there. Being able to now stabilize the color on the statues is a really big deal.

WCWD: Did they come to Science Center?

Diana Johns: Yes, one trip to assess the site in July of 2016 and of course, again to put the artifacts into the exhibit here. They did the same in Philadelphia.

WCWD: Did Science Center staff travel to Xi'an?

Diana Johns: Yes, we visited several museums in December of 2015 and then some of the Philadelphia staff went back to do object condition checks and observe how the objects were packed as they were readied for transportation.

WCWD: So how did the warriors and artifacts get transported here?

Diana Johns: Due to insurance reasons we can’t go into too much detail but people often assume they come via sea transport and that’s not the case.

WCWD: Science Center, of course, is about science. As your announcement says, the exhibit is an immersive investigation of the science and technological advancements of the Qin Dynasty. But the terracotta warriors are a lot of things, history, archeology, art, even politics, ancient vs. contemporary. What would you like Seattleites to learn most from this exhibit?

Diana Johns: You’ve actually just put your finger on it – that the warriors are about a lot of things! Often science and technology is left out of a big artifact exhibit because it’s usually not science center’s doing those types of shows; rather it’s art or natural history museums. However, science and technology make up an important part of the tapestry that constitutes any history, in addition to the art, culture and politics of the time – it’s really important to understand they all lean on each other. That bigger historical picture also provides context on how to look contemporary times as well, history that is currently being made.

(For more information on major events in Washington state-China relations, go to WA China Chronicle.)