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Massive Treasures of the Forbidden City exhibit coming to the Royal Ontario Museum

“Chicken” cup - Ming Chenghua, 1464-1487, The Palace Museum. One of the rarest porcelains was made by Emperor Chenghua (r. 1465 - 1487) for his mother who loved small objects. Only two such cups exist today in the Forbidden City collection in Beijing.

Royal Ontario Museum

A throne of jade, ivory and lacquer from the 18th century, a delicate porcelain cup from the 15th, a ceremonial silk robe worn by a six-year-old emperor – these are just some of the estimated 250 treasures travelling to the Royal Ontario Museum from Beijing next year as part of a massive exhibition devoted to the wares of the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Details of the exhibition, titled The Forbidden City: Inside the Court of China's Emperors, were announced at a media conference on Wednesday at the ROM in Toronto. Many of the artifacts, to be on display March 8 through Sept. 1, 2014, have never been seen before in North America and of the 250, about 80 have never travelled beyond the walls of the Forbidden City, the name given to the sprawling official residence – 980 buildings! 9,000 rooms! – occupied by China's emperors from the mid-14th century to the fall of 1911, after which the country became a republic.

Supplementing its presentation of calligraphy, textiles, books and jewellery, paintings, ceramics, utensils, timepieces and court documents will be artifacts from the ROM's own renowned Chinese collections, plus ROM-produced multimedia components. Owing to the significant presence of light-sensitive textiles and paintings, there's going to be a substantial rotation of objects around the halfway point of the show's six-month run.

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Presented by the Hong Kong-based Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation, The Forbidden City marks the ROM's 100th anniversary and serves as a major contribution to the China-Canada Cultural Exchange of 2014. The exhibition is being organized by the ROM, with Chen Shen, its Bishop White Chair of East Asian Archaeology as lead curator, and Beijing's Palace Museum, the name the republic gave to the former palace when it opened the site to the public in 1925.

Visitors to the exhibition will have a three-part experience. The first begins with a preview of the 90 or so architectural complexes that made up the Forbidden City. The second – and largest – brings viewers into the opulent palace's Outer Court, used primarily for ceremonial and state purposes, and its Inner Court, including presentations of the emperor's most private chambers. The third, called Leaving the Forbidden City, explores the Forbidden City's transformation into the Palace Museum and, as of 1987, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Forbidden City is the second ROM exhibition the Ho Family Foundation has helped bankroll.  In 2010 it partnered with the museum to present The Warrior Emperor and China's Terracotta Army which, with more than 350,000 visitors, still ranks as the single-best attended exhibition in ROM history. For Forbidden City, the foundation also is funding the public and educational programming associated with the exhibition.

The foundation was created in 2005 by Vancouver-based philanthropist Robert Ho, now 80 and grandson of one of Hong Kong's wealthiest merchants, Sir Robert Ho Tung. To realize its aim of raising international awareness and appreciation of Chinese arts and culture and Buddhist philosophy, the foundation has financed a wide array of programs, projects and initiatives around the world, including, in 2006, a $4-million donation to establish a Buddhist studies program at the University of Toronto, Scarborough.  Earlier this year it announced it was funding a curatorship of Chinese art at New York's Guggenheim Museum; the museum in turn will be using foundation money to commission original art works by contemporary artists born in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan or Macao.

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