The First Emperor and his army of visitors

Congratulations Transport For London on making me late yet again. Its 8.45am and if I want to make it on time I need to pick up the pace. Convinced the opportunity has been lost I rush down New Oxford St, my speedy walk now an embarrassing jog. No longer feeling the bitter chill of the December morning I finally turn the last corner and lay eyes on the first of the early arrivals. A quick scan down the queue and I find my punctual companion about seventy people deep in a line of one hundred or so. I tuck in alongside the railings, ignoring the grumbles of the couple behind me, and take a moment to look around. Today the British Museum is awash with black and red banners, and although empty of tourists it is very clear who is inside – the Chinese Terracotta Army. This is of course the reason for my obscenely early dash across London. As all advanced tickets are currently sold out any hopeful attendee of the anticipated exhibition must ensure they are one of the first five hundred to purchase a ticket on the day. By 9.20am my admission ticket was sitting snug in my bag.

Even as I took part in this frantic and, in my case, paranoid scramble I was faintly aware that this was a bizarre episode. I had no idea of the numbers of people likely to show up yet I was convinced that the insane popularity of the exhibition required the outwitting of potential ticket rivals, digging a few elbows in and an all round no-prisoners-taken attitude. Clearly my fellow visitors had read the situation the same and if needs be were also prepared to seek their cultural enlightenment before 9 in the morning.

It would be unfair to put this completely down to hype for you would have to be incredibly cynical to gloss over the fascinating topic of the exhibition. The terracotta army of the First Emperor was the archaeological find of the last century and unless you are fortunate enough to travel to China this is pretty much your one shot at getting a look. Nonetheless, the British Museum has put some big bucks into this and has suitably promoted it relentlessly. News column inches have been generated and the public imagination caught. But I’m afraid this is where my cynicism takes over. How many people are going because they have been convinced by the general aura of hysteria? Maybe somehow it would be a slight on their cultural credentials if they did not. I confess I’m afraid to miss out and I’m desperately hoping others also find themselves afflicted with this self-absorbed relationship with culture.

Now I didn’t really mind the circumstances in which I had to get my ticket but I do have one contention which arises from it – why are visitors being crammed into the exhibition space like chickens in a battery farm? Experience, enjoyment and learning are all being sacrificed in a bid to get as many people at £12 a head through. Yes demand is high and yes the museum needs to recuperate its money, but surely the point of getting a nice corporate sponsor like Morgan Stanley is to counter the actual need for sardine-esq conditions. There were times when I was trapped between display cases, times when museum attendants had to disperse the polite queues forming everywhere, and times when people not very subtly pushed me out the way. It was enough to kill any reflective atmosphere and it didn’t feel respectful to the magnitude of this past dynasty’s achievements. It felt like cultural consumerism gone mental and I left grateful that at least it was a box I could tick.

Enough of the negativity. In truth it is an opportunity to be seized. The exhibition focuses on the cultural and military background of the First Emperor and it really raises the bar with the marvel-factor of the objects on display. Although a lot of information about the discovery and home of the army is left out some of it can be gleamed from several film presentations. If you can face the crowds and the fleeting sense that if lemmings did museums they would probably be just like this, definitely go. Witness firsthand the power of the blockbuster exhibition to entice the masses over the museum threshold.

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