For the “Masterpieces of Landscape Painting from the Forbidden City,”  I had the opportunity to get behind-the-scenes access to the off-limits area of the Palace Museum in Beijing. Academy curator of Asian Art Shawn Eichman and I met the curatorial team of the paintings and calligraphy department in a modern, well-lit room furnished with large armchairs adorned with antimacassars and inspected each painting one by one on a large table.

As they recited the condition notes in Mandarin, Shawn translated their words into English and took shots of every condition detail while I feverishly transcribed for our English version of the condition report. As each painting was unveiled from colorful brocade bags and unfurled before us, I was dazzled by the procession of masterpieces from the Yuan to the Qing dynasties—I felt like Indiana Jones in a cave of treasures. From close up the paintings were awesome to behold.

Our interpreter from the Palace Museum’s Foreign Office kindly treated us to lunch at the staff lunchroom. To get there we walked through alleys flanked by immense walls. These  pathways once traversed by dowager empresses are now traveled by staff bicycling to and fro across the vast areas within the ancient red-walled city of over 900 buildings—the largest palace complex in the world. Entering the functional lunchroom through a plastic curtain straight from a walk-in freezer, I was met by chairs and long tables reminiscent of my school days and large steaming trays of rice, chow fun, vegetables and other delicious offerings with the popular brown sauce often seen on Mandarin dishes.