The Writing on the Wall


One of the fortunes on the BEST Café wall.

If you’ve had lunch or attended a VMFA After Hours performance in BEST Café since October, you’ve probably read—and gotten a chuckle out of—the giant fortunes on the walls. “One that would have the fruit must climb the tree.” (Well, maybe not that orange you just picked up from the BEST cooler.) “It is better to ask questions than to know all the answers.” (Your wife will agree, but maybe not your boss.)

Obviously, these fortunes carry on the theme of our current special exhibition, Forbidden City: Imperial Treasures from the Palace Museum, Beijing. But are they significant in any way and how did they come to be displayed on BEST’s walls?

First of all, fortune cookies aren’t authentically Chinese. According to a 2008 New York Times article, these crisp cookies with words of wisdom and prophecy hidden inside were “introduced by the Japanese, popularized by the Chinese, but ultimately … consumed by Americans.” OK, so scratch ancient origins or deep meaning. However, fortune cookies have come to represent Chinese culture to those of us who eat our share of food out of cardboard containers. So, when the folks in VMFA’s Design department were tossing around ways to extend the Forbidden City theme into BEST, fortunes seemed like the perfect, i.e. relatable, way of doing it.

How to find exactly the right fortunes? That was the fun (and fattening) part. The department bought bags upon bags of fortune cookies and munched their way through all of them while designing Forbidden City, setting aside the fortunes until they’d finished every last cookie (it was a difficult assignment but this team isn’t afraid of challenges!). They then sorted through the resulting pile of tiny slips of paper and, by committee, selected the ten best to display on the walls of BEST. To give visitors the full experience, they decided to also include the Chinese translations, pronunciations, and lucky numbers beneath the fortunes. So while you’re eating your lunch and reading fortunes, you can also practice your Chinese!

The fortunes were created out of adhesive vinyl, so when the exhibition closes, they can simply be peeled off the walls for the next fun concept the Design department comes up with. Wonder what that might be?