China’s terracotta warriors are to return to the UK almost a decade after they thrilled visitors in a landmark exhibition at the British Museum.
Karen Bradley, the culture secretary, announced that Liverpool’s World Museum would be the next destination for the spectacular treasures which China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, had made to accompany him into the afterlife.
Bradley is in China on a cultural bridge-building mission. She said: “The terracotta army represents one of the most significant archaeological excavations of the 20th century, and I am delighted that a selection of the warriors will be coming to Liverpool for the first time in 2018. I am sure that the exhibition will be very warmly received by the people of Merseyside and beyond as Britain welcomes back the terracotta warriors.
Some of the terracotta warriors on display at the British Museum in 2007. Photograph: Alamy
“The exhibition will also encourage an ongoing cultural exchange between China and Britain, further progressing the relationship between our two nations and strengthening lasting ties.”
The warriors were last in the UK in 2007 for what was the British Museum’s second most successful exhibition ever after the Tutankhamun fever of 1972. That show was seen by 1.7 million people, while the terracotta army was seen by 850,000. Before that the warriors were last in the UK in 1985, at a much smaller exhibition at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh.
Liverpool expects the blockbuster show to be on a similar scale to London, with visitors from across the UK and Europe. About 120 objects or sets of objects will be on display, some of which have never been seen in the UK.
Unlike the London show, it will cover the the pre-unification Qin kings (307 to 221BC) and the first emperor’s legacy in the Han Dynasty (206BC to AD220).
David Fleming, director of National Museums Liverpool, said the organisation was “hugely excited” to have signed a memorandum of understanding to bring the warriors to the city. The show will run for six months from February to October 2018.
“Following the success of our Mayas exhibition in 2015, and the reopening of our Ancient Egypt gallery in 2017, this is a significant time for World Museum and National Museums Liverpool. It is really important that we stay in healthy dialogue with our international colleagues.”
Fleming said it would be a particularly proud moment for the city as Liverpool has the oldest Chinese community in Europe. “We are proud to be strengthening the city’s connections with other cultural organisations in China and creating an exhibition programme that continues to excite and inspire visitors from across the globe,” he added.
It was 1974 when a man digging a well struck upon one of the most remarkable archaeological discoveries the world has seen. Since then, more than 8,000 lifesized terracotta warriors – with individual clothing, hair and facial features – have been discovered near the city of Xi’an.
They tell a remarkable story about an emperor who put an end to 350 years of warring states in the late third century BC and wanted to extend his rule into eternity. The vast army of clay warriors was there to protect him forever.
This week, Bradley is leading a delegation of the UK’s cultural industries to China, the latest attempt to build bridges after the damaging row earlier this summer over Hinkley Point C. Last month Theresa May talked about a “golden era” of relations between the two countries as she met Ma Kai, one of China’s vice-premiers.
The UK has been using culture as a soft power tool in China for a number of years. This year, for example, the Royal Shakespeare Company embarked on its first major tour of China and the British Library has organised exhibitions with literary treasures such as Shakespeare’s First Folio and Charlotte Bronte’s fair copy manuscript to Jane Eyre.
Bradley also visited the McKinnon Hotel in Shanghai where the theatre group Punchdrunk is about to open its hit show Sleep No More with Chinese partners.