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Wallace Collection visit to China and Taiwan with ICOM UK – British Council Travel Grant

Ada de Wit, Assistant Curator at the Wallace Collection in London travelled to China and Taiwan in March 2019 with an ICOM UK – British Council Travel Grant.  This is the report from Ada’s visit.

 

The ‘Gold Cups of Eternal Stability’, China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), Qianlong period (1736–95), 1739/40 and 1740/41, © The Wallace Collection

The ‘Gold Cups of Eternal Stability’, China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), Qianlong period (1736–95), 1739/40 and 1740/41, © The Wallace Collection

The purpose of my visit was to meet curators, explore a possible future collaboration with Chinese and Taiwanese museums, especially the Palace Museums in Beijing and Taipei, and to share knowledge about our respective collections. The Wallace Collection has two important Chinese gold cups made for the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799). Only four cups were made; the other two are in Beijing and Taipei. My research on the cups triggered the development of a curatorial strategy for our Chinese works of art and plans to establish relationships with museums in Asia.

I spent two days at the Palace Museum, Beijing where I met Mrs Zhang Rong (Director of Library and Archives), Mr Zhang Linjie (Head Curator of Decorative Arts) and two young curators from his department, and Ms LI Yuesha (Foreign Affairs Department). Mrs Zhang Rong conducted research on the cups, whereas Mr Zhang Linjie has curatorial responsibility for the Beijing cup. Ms LI Yuesha organised my visit.

At the National Museum of China I met a group representing different departments, including Dr Wang Zhiqiang (Research Department), Dr Cheng Xiao Lin, Dr Zhu Wanzhang, Mr Zhang An Hao, and Ms Xiao Yun Peng (Acquisition and Identification department) and Lingxuan Xiao (Education).

Yili Hou and I standing next to the ‘Gold Cup of Eternal Stability’ at the National Palace Museum, Taipei.

Yili Hou and I standing next to the ‘Gold Cup of Eternal Stability’ at the National Palace Museum, Taipei.

In the National Palace Museum, Taipei I met a group of curators, including Dr Peichin Yu (Chief Curator of Antiquities Department) and Dr Yili Hou (Associate Curator and Section Chief of Department of Antiquities) and Ms Luwen Hu (Assistant Curator, Department of Antiquities). Dr Hou did extensive research on the cups in Beijing and Taipei. In the Southern Branch I met Mr Chien Yu Wang (Assistant Curator).

All my meetings went very well; I was very well received, my hosts took time for me and we had opportunities to get to know each other, discuss our collections, ask questions and exchange information. I did not have to arrange an interpreter because my hosts took care that there were always members of staff who spoke English.

Before my visit, communication with museums in China was limited; email communication is less popular in China and there is a language barrier as some more senior curators do not speak English and I do not know Chinese. My visit and opportunity to meet curators in Beijing and Taiwan face-to-face made a huge difference. It opened doors for future communication. I opened a WeChat account so now I have contact details of all the people I met.

Zhang Linjie, his colleagues from the Palace Museum, Beijing and I at the entrance to the exhibition ‘Celebrating the Spring Festival in the Forbidden City’.

Zhang Linjie, his colleagues from the Palace Museum, Beijing and I at the entrance to the exhibition ‘Celebrating the Spring Festival in the Forbidden City’.

During my visit, I met not only senior curators but also young museum professionals. They are very open, speak excellent English and are eager to conduct research in Europe. However, they receive fewer opportunities to go on work trips abroad because official invitation letters are required. These are usually issued to more senior and established researchers. I would very much like to help Chinese assistant curators to come to London and will talk with our Director about it. I made it clear to all my hosts that they are welcome to the Wallace Collection.

First of all, I established contacts for future communication. The museums I visited gained a partner in London – I made it clear that they are welcome to contact me, that I can put them in touch with my other colleagues, help with obtaining images for publications and information for research, and that they are welcome to visit the Wallace Collection and study our objects. I will discuss with our Director, Dr Xavier Bray, writing invitation letters.

From my colleagues in Beijing and Taiwan I learnt a great deal about their collections, especially about their research on cups, and how they display and interpret them. I took an iPad with me with high-resolution images of all Chinese works of art in the Wallace Collection. Curators in Asia commented on the pieces and expressed opinions regarding dating the objects which can help me in updating our museum interpretation.

From my side, I shared findings of our research on the cups and their images, which are of interest to the museums in Beijing and Taipei. I feel much more confident to talk and write about Chinese art which will be beneficial for curatorial and educational purposes of the Wallace Collection.

What advice would I give to other museum professionals undertaking similar international visits?

  • Work on your network – all my appointments were arranged with the help of people I had met before.
  • Do your homework; learn about the institutions you are planning to visit and people you will meet (remember their names and learn how to pronounce them), local customs (e.g. business cards are given in China with two hands).
  • If you go to China, install WeChat and set up an account. It helped me enormously in communication.
  • Bring gifts and make sure you have room for them in your suitcase – I brought guidebooks about the Wallace Collection which weighed almost 10 kg!

In terms of next steps, I will begin with updating our museum interpretation. My visit was an important element of a curatorial strategy focusing on Chinese works of art. I have already appointed a Chinese speaking intern and I work closely with our Chinese guide lecturer who gives tours in Mandarin. With their help, we will provide some introductory information to the collection in Chinese. In the future, we hope to be able to provide audio guides in Mandarin. I will discuss with our Director the subject of invitation letters. I need to see what is required; sadly, the Wallace Collection will probably be unable to assist with travel and accommodation costs.

I am happy to make our collection available for researchers; curators in Beijing, Taipei and I agreed to exchange images and archival material for study purposes. If our relationship develops, we might consider in the future a more specific project.

My visit has been a good first step in establishing a relationship with partners in Beijing and Taipei and it helped to focus on non-European works of art in the Wallace Collection. The visit helped me to establish myself as curator responsible not only for European but also Chinese works of art, and I gained valuable international experience.

“Ada’s visit to the museums in Beijing and Taipei is an important first step in establishing strong connections with Chinese museums. Ada’s research and this visit are essential in raising the profile of our exceptional collection of Chinese works of art. The Wallace Collection is committed to being an outward facing, international museum, and this research trip has forged strong bonds with some of the great museums of Asia.”

Dr Xavier Bray, Director, The Wallace Collection

ICOM UK