Apart from being the greatest example of late Chinese dynastic architecture, the Forbidden City is also a very fine museum. Or rather; there are a whole series of museums devoted to different types of objects, scattered over the vast site; some being permanent displays and others being for temporary exhibitions.
One of the best displays is the Palace Ceramics Collection, which is situated in a building well off to the side of the main tourist route and therefore very quiet. The building is very dark with only the ceramic objects themselves being strongly lit. While this should produce ideal viewing conditions it fails because the objects are displayed behind glass which catches lots of distracting reflections and rather spoils the experience.
The ceramics display features work from all periods of Chinese history but the bulk of the pottery is from the Qing dynasty (not surprising in a Qing dynasty palace.) Although the Manchu dynasty is not the greatest period in Chinese ceramic history, the display has many fine examples.
Much bigger crowds are encountered at the Imperial Jewellery Collection where a degree of pushing and elbowing can be required to get a good view. Most of the visitors are Chinese, however, and they are mostly preoccupied with “oohing” and “aaahing” at the biggest precious stones and the biggest lumps of gold, leaving lots of pieces of interesting design relatively ignored. In fact much of the jewellery is fairly uninspiring, design-wise, consisting of many (large) precious stones formed into naturalistic arrangements of flower or fruit shapes. Some of the most unusual and interesting items are not the grand jewellery pieces but the accessories such as decorated belts.
The Forbidden City has many other displays, such as one with European clocks and scientific instruments from the Imperial collections and another with objects connected to the day to day life and rituals of the Qing Imperial household. These included some nice textile objects, though it is impossible to say whether these were originals or reproductions.
Apart from the buildings converted into modern exhibition spaces, beautiful objects can be seen in many other parts of the Palace. My favourite is a “connoisseur’s wall” which displays many beautiful ceramic treasures.
Finally, there is beautiful design to be found in many out of the way corners. While the main facades dazzle with their clashing gold and polychromatic extravaganza, other parts of the buildings have much more subtle decoration, including some fine window grill designs.
Related post: The Forbidden City, Beijing