Art, History

Eastern Exchanges

Last week I attended the preview evening for Eastern Exchanges: East Asian Craft and Design at Manchester Art Gallery. This new, free, temporary exhibition replaces the Sensory War on the Gallery’s second floor and features many cutting edge pieces of Chinese, Japanese and Korean craft and design together with a wide range of historical examples. Many of the older objects are on loan from various public and private collections, including Manchester Museum. The exhibition is well-lit and definitely not short on displays – it features over 1500 objects. Gallery director Maria Balshaw was on-hand to give the opening speech and was particularly exited about the opportunity to display a large 19th century Japanese ‘norimono’, a kind of sedan, which has not been exhibited in 30 years.

A 19th Century Japanese Norimono

A 19th Century Japanese Norimono

I recently read Masao Yamaguchi’s fascinating article ‘The Poetics of Exhibition in Japanese Culture’ published in ‘Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics of Museum Display’ (1991). In it, he discusses the various techniques employed in Japanese exhibition spaces to transmit knowledge about objects. ‘Mitate’, is the Japanese art of citation – that is – the transposition of meaning upon an object through association with a broader and usually mythological context (i.e an accompanying image, sounds, or even another object). Mitate could have been a useful technique to employ at this exhibition, where the approach to displaying objects was one of Western familiarity – the objects were mainly displayed in isolation, in a stark, white environment with an accompanying caption. This, however, may well have been the point – after all, the main focus of the exhibition was to appreciate the aesthetics and design of the objects and many of the older objects had been collected for exactly that reason. The fact that this display is in an art gallery rather than a museum did seem to shift the focus of the ethnographic items onto appreciation of the visual, but this was not necessarily reductive of the object. The modern art and craft pieces were displayed separately, presumably to create a chronological dichotomy between the two spaces, and were impressive and beautiful.

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Meiji Period Japanese Satsuma Ware water-holder.

Meiji Period Japanese Satsuma Ware water-holder.

A selection of Japanese Tsuba (sword guards)

A selection of Japanese Tsuba (sword guards)

Japanese laquer box with intricate decoration

Japanese laquer box with intricate decoration

Suit of Japanese armour, on loan from Manchester Museum

Suit of Japanese armour, on loan from Manchester Museum

The exhibition is open for a relatively short eight weeks and I would definitely recommend going to have a look. It aspires to take the visitor on a journey through the last 300 years of East Asian arts and crafts, combining old with new, and I would say it very much succeeds in doing so.

Eastern Exchanges is at the Manchester Art Gallery until May 31st.

Karp, I and Lavine, D. (eds.) 1991. Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display. London: Smithsonian Institute Press.

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Archaeology

Fragments of Samoa

Yesterday I was working with trainee museum curator Kiera Gould on some of the Samoan ethnographic artefacts that the Manchester Museum has in its collection. Below are two examples of these, an intricately carved wooden fan and a hank of tobacco which has been packed for trade and was purchased by the Museum in 1918.

Wooden Fan from Samoa

Wooden Fan from Samoa

Hank of Tobacco From Samoa

Hank of Tobacco From Samoa

Samoa, since becoming independent of New Zealand in 1962, is an independent country consisting of about half of the chain of Samoan Islands in the South Pacific.  The other half of the chain forms American Samoa, which is an unincorporated territory of the United States. Samoa has some fascinating archaeology – particularly the wealth of prehistoric stone tools which have been found there. Leading New Zealand archaeologist Janet Davidson was among the first to pioneer Samoan archaeology when she excavated there in the late 1960s. Discover more about her finds and the archaeological collection at the Museum of Samoa here.

In other news, the piece of research I’m embarking on with fellow archaeology students Stephanie McCulloch and Liya Walsh together with University of Manchester lecturer Dr. Hannah Cobb (link to previous post) is underway. I’ll be constructing a separate blog to publish updates but I’ll keep you posted on here too. The title will be Visible diggers: researching learning through research in archaeology. The repetition of the word research is of course intentional, and its importance for students is what we hope to highlight through this project. We’re currently discussing the strategy for collecting data from University of Manchester archaeology students and how best to present this at the CIfA conference in Cardiff in April. More updates as they unfold!

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Archaeology

Strange Objects

This week, I joined the University’s archaeology society and was elected as its museum liaison. It’s now my task to arrange activities for myself and my peers which are museum-related and this got me thinking about how museums display archaeological material. When an artefact is found in the ground, at least when part of an academic or commercial excavation, its exact location is meticulously recorded. The surrounding material (context) is mapped and many other things like dating and post-excavation analysis may be conducted. After working with the Manchester Museum’s ethnography collections for a few months it became apparent that museums often hold large quantities of objects which have little or no information associated with them. These usually come from older acquisitions or donations from personal collections. I have come across many examples from North and South America which have no reliable date, provenance, and in some cases the nature of the object itself is a complete mystery. Are objects like this useful to us as archaeologists at all? Do we have to know anything about the object’s history or origins for it to provide us with information about the past?  This is something I’d like to explore in one of the sessions and would be interested to see other student’s reactions to an object which the museum knows nothing about, and I will let you know some thoughts on the matter.

In other news, the Whitworth Gallery’s long awaited renovation is nearly complete. The new galleries look great and have upcoming exhibitions by artists such as Cornelia Parker and Sarah Lucas. I’m particularly excited by Cai Guo-Qiang’s stunning installation which will be displayed in the new landscape gallery. He uses gunpowder to created huge and sprawling Chinese-inspired landscapes. Read more about it here. I shall be attending a preview evening on Saturday 7th of Feb to check out the newly improved gallery for myself ahead of its official opening on the 14th, although a photography embargo will be maintained until the 11th so I’ll post some photos after that date. Wouldn’t want to spoil it for the press!

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