The “Terracotta Warriors of the First Empire” at the Pacific Science Center


The Pacific Science Center in Seattle teamed up with The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia to bring ten terracotta warriors and hundreds of other objects from the tomb stateside, as well as some objects from before and after the Qin dynasty, they personally chose on their trips to China.  The show opened at the Pacific Science Center on April 8th, 2017 and will be on view until September 4th, 2017.  The exhibit will then move to Philadelphia at The Franklin Institute from September 30th, 2017 until March 8th, 2018.  Seattle and Philadelphia are the only two cities on the tour, so if you are eager to see the terracotta warriors and will be in the appropriate area during those time frames, this is an exhibit you do not want to miss.

This exhibit was six years in the making and the work shows.  Overall, I thought the exhibit does a very good job of placing the work in context historically and socially, while primarily explaining the purpose of the warriors, how they were made, and the specific members of the army they represent.  The very first room plays a video explaining what the terracotta warriors are, the emperor who commissioned them, and how they were found centuries later.  Once that video ends, doors open dramatically to reveal the first warrior and let you into the rest of the exhibit.  The next room starts with bronze objects typically found in tombs of the wealthy, as well as some pottery artifacts for the tombs of those who were less wealthy.  There is also a timeline painted on the wall comparing the history of China before, during, and after the Qin dynasty with the rest of the world.  An interactive touch-screen in the timeline also lets you explore elements of the timeline more in-depth.  After that, the arrangement of the room is broad, letting you see multiple artifacts and warriors at once, but keeps you on a mostly directed path.

Once this selection of bronze pieces, pottery, and the timeline situates you in historical context and in the context of funerary objects, the exhibit takes you to the next warrior, opening to views of several warriors at once.  The second warrior you encounter on your journey through the exhibit is the one I found the most striking.  It is of a high-ranking general, found in pit number one.  As stated on one of the labels for this warrior, “[t]he highest-ranking officers, armored generals were larger in size and had more elaborate armor and distinctive headgear.”  As with the other warriors, more detail and care was taken when molding and sculpting the head. Unlike the other warriors in this exhibit, and why I find it so interesting, is that the head of this general looks like it was made out of bronze.  The wall label only indicates the material as pottery, so it is not bronze, but it is interesting to ponder that because of this warrior’s high status, his head could have been made from a sturdier material.  At the least it is reasonable to wonder if more care and attention was put in the construction of his head, or even if perhaps this figure was supposed to represent a real person.

“High-Ranking General.” Terracotta, Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE). Image by Catherine Harlow.

At this point in the exhibit, along with the explanations on the wall text, there are many banners throughout that explain who was the First Emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, how the warriors were made, and why Shihuangdi had them created.  Shihuangdi desired to achieve immortality, but created his expansive terracotta army to protect him for eternity if he failed.  Shihuangdi was able to create such a massive terracotta army because of mass production.  The artisans utilized molds and assembly lines to quickly and efficiently construct the thousands of statues for Shihuangdi’s eternal army.  There were only a few different molds for the various body parts and heads, yet when they were assembled, various details were added, particularly in the heads, to make each one unique.

Continuing through the exhibit, the other warriors include two archers, a cavalryman and horse, what is likely a musician, an infantryman, and an official.  Every wall label includes details such as the date range they were made, the pit in which they were found, the height, the year the piece was excavated, and how many of that type have been found so far.  They also provide a brief explanation of their position in the army, and point out details on the figure such as identifying headgear, the type of weapon they would have likely held, and distinguishing details of the armor.  Some labels also include pictures of what the warriors looked like when they were just excavated.  Since only one terracotta warrior has been found completely intact, all the others were broken and have since been reassembled, as evidenced by the photos.  The most striking part of the excavation photos is that they show how colorful and lifelike the warriors were.  Unfortunately, the color flaked off very quickly upon exposure to air.  The color was painted on top of lacquer, which decomposed rapidly once exposed to air, and left the terracotta grey in color.

One of the final rooms of the exhibit, recreates how the warriors would have looked in the tomb when first buried and as they deteriorated.  It is a small, darkened room, complete with wooden beams overhead.  Coming around the corner in the dark and being confronted with a full-size warrior in bright color is a shock–in my first split-second response I mistook the figure for a real person.  Going a little bit further in this room the statues farther back have less color on them and become more broken.  The wooden beams look like they are rotten and have fallen on warriors.  The final statue in this space has a video projection on it that shows the transformation from new to the broken, aged state we see today.  For such a small space in the exhibit, it is surprisingly very effective at showing you what these figures originally looked like in situ and how they have deteriorated over time.

It is an incredibly rare opportunity to see terracotta warriors outside of China, and I think this exhibit does them justice.  They clearly put a lot of effort and thought into making it an educational, yet easily digestible, experience for viewers of all ages.  They even include two spaces for children to have some hands-on experience teaching them about the advantages mass production played in creating the warriors and how the warriors had to be pieced back together after they were excavated.  I highly recommend taking the time to see this exhibit if you are local, or even planning a special trip if you are not.  The warriors are a fascinating combination of individualized and generalized when you inspect them from head to toe.  Just one of these statues is impressive, and then when you realize the immense scope of the full army of these figures, it is mind-blowing and humbling to envisage.

Exhibition view of “Terracotta Warriors of the First Empire” at the Pacific Science Center, 2017. Image by Catherine Harlow.

3 comments on “The “Terracotta Warriors of the First Empire” at the Pacific Science Center

  1. I went to see this exhibit with my family and was also impressed. Not only did they do a good job of describing the actual construction process, but I felt as though I understood the character of the First Emperor (I loved that his Plan A was immortality – go big or go home, right?) who commanded their creation. I also found the room with the fully colored warriors striking – it’s funny how we get so used to their current state and it becomes so jarring to see them with paint because it doesn’t fit with our mental image of Terracotta Warrior.
    My personal favorite was the possible-musician. I just found it so interesting because of 1) the mystery surrounding a single figure and 2) the fact that we only tend to hear about the warriors, but there were other courtiers and entertainers included in the underground palace.
    Nice overview of the exhibit!


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