Terracotta Warriors invade Pacific Science Center in new exhibit

For more than 2,000 years, they stood at attention below the earth, protectors of the tomb of Emperor Qin Shihuang. Thousands of life-sized clay soldiers, horses, chariots, and more, meant to shield the first ruler of a unified China from evil spirits in the afterlife.

It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that a group of well-digging farmers unearthed the first signs of what would become one of the most astonishing archeological discoveries in modern history.

Now, 10 of the stunning original life-sized statues are on display in Seattle — along with more than 100 original artifacts and objects from the first imperial dynasty of China — as part of the world premiere Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor exhibit, which runs through Sept. 4 at the Pacific Science Center. A 40-minute IMAX documentary, “Mysteries of China,” complements the exhibit, providing a vivid backdrop to the initial discovery and historic detail that inform the viewing experience.

While this isn’t the first time the traveling Terracotta Army has appeared in the United States, the collaboration between the science center and Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute focuses on the science and technology surrounding both the burial and the artifacts, putting a unique spin on the latest display.

“Diving into how they did this, you come to realize that their mass production techniques were as sophisticated as what we have today,” said Diana Johns, the Pacific Science Center’s vice president of exhibits. “They were just working with their feet and their hands and clay as opposed to metal and different materials. The jumping off point from a science and technology perspective, there’s just so many of them, so we were excited.”

That excitement spanned about four years of planning, Johns said.

Two years were focused on building relationships and negotiating contracts with the People’s Republic of China. The next 24 months were “a wild race” to create the storyline, design and fabricate the showcase, and put it all together. Within that span, science center staff traveled to China to determine what pieces to display, with Chinese representatives later coming to Seattle to assist in the installation.

There was also the matter of working with Shaanxi Cultural Heritage Promotion Center as the intermediary between the science center and the museums in and around Xi’an to get the right pieces to display.

“Sometimes we went back and forth about whose story it was, every once and a while, but really they were so great about helping us to extend the story before Qin and after Qin as well,” Johns said.

And building an exhibit from the bottom up can be a daunting task.

“The reality is that you never really know when you’re doing something from scratch whether you’re going to achieve all the things you’re trying to do,” she said.

But, a combination of hard work, creativity, goodwill, and “that little bit of magic dust,” Johns said, have made for a successful showcase as the exhibit passes the halfway point in its Seattle stay.

“I really appreciate the fact that people get this idea that it’s not just about the artifacts,” she said. “It’s about the people who created them, that there were real people who worked very hard, and probably didn’t have the easiest of lives who created these amazing artifacts that we get to enjoy today.”

While some of the warriors have left their post guarding the emperor’s tomb, the mausoleum itself remains sealed, and its contents unknown.

“I love the fact that in this day and age of instant gratification in terms of knowledge that this is something we actually have to wait on,” Johns said. “They’re not going to go in there until they can go in there and keep things safe, both people and the artifacts. I love that. I love the fact that it’s a mystery, I love the fact that the answers to that are still to come.”

That’s the lasting message left to attendees: There’s more story yet to be told.

Perhaps this time, it won’t take more than 2,000 years to uncover the secrets yet to be revealed.

For more information on the exhibit, go to www.pacificsciencecenter.org/terracotta-warriors. The Pacific Science Center is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Prices range from $12 for members, to $34.75 for adults.