Ming: 50 years that changed China, at the British Museum

This post was contributed by Yi-Wen Huang, a PhD student in Arts Management in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies.

Carved red lacquer on wood core, Yongle mark and period 1403-24, South China. Diameter 34.8 cm © The Trustees of the British Museum

Carved red lacquer on wood core, Yongle mark and period 1403-24, South China. Diameter 34.8 cm © The Trustees of the British Museum

A few weeks ago, I, along with my fellow students, attended the British Museum’s current exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China which opened on 18 September. The visit ended with a Q&A session with the project curator, Dr Yu-Ping Luk. The exhibition is divided into five sections, namely the Ming Court, the Arts of War, the Arts of Peace, Beliefs, and Trade and Diplomacy. The arrangement of the exhibition allowed for the depiction of the aesthetic qualities of the works. In addition, the display and accompanying text alongside the exhibitions also provided a contextual perspective through highlighting how these objects reflected the social hierarchy and conditions of Ming China.

One of the questions that I had in my mind before attending the exhibition was trying to work out in what ways did the fore-mentioned 50 years in the Ming Dynasty change China? According to the curator, the 50 years between 1400 and 1450 were important for three reasons: the shift of the capital of China from Nanjing to Beijing in 1421, the emphasis placed on art by the Emperor Xuande and the explorations undertaken by Zheng He. The exhibits on display thus reflected these three shifts.

Palace Museum scroll arrows: Detail from ‘Amusements in the Xuande emperor’s palace’ showing the emperor playing an arrow-throwing game. Handscroll, ink and colours on silk. Xuande period, 1426–1435. Anonymous. The Palace Museum, Beijing. © The Palace Museum

Palace Museum scroll arrows: Detail from ‘Amusements in the Xuande emperor’s palace’ showing the emperor playing an arrow-throwing game. Handscroll, ink and colours on silk. Xuande period, 1426–1435. Anonymous. The Palace Museum, Beijing. © The Palace Museum

The objects that impressed me the most were the long scroll paintings on loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing. These paintings depicted hunting activities, eunuchs playing polo and horse-riding. If you look carefully enough, you would be able to find images of the emperor appearing in different scenes participating in the various activities. These paintings reflected life in the imperial court through an insightful observational panorama brought to life through the technical skill of the artist on a long scroll. The landscape paintings with accompanying calligraphy were another display that I found interesting. Landscape painting has long been part of an intellectual tradition of the literati in China. In the Ming regime, landscape painting was one of the Four Arts (四藝 sih yi); the other three being able to master the musical instrument, the Gu Qin, being able to play Chinese Chess and becoming skilled in calligraphy. These landscape paintings at the exhibition explicitly reflected the elegant (雅 ya) culture among the literati. Finally, I was also fascinated by the display of the very first Koran in China which reflected the multicultural and multi-faith in the society in Ming China.

The Q&A session after our visit with the project curator Dr Luk was the most rewarding part of the visit. Through sharing her experience in curating the exhibition, Dr Luk highlighted how this exhibition was the result of five years of research, preparation and collaboration between scholars and professionals from different institutions. Learning about how the objects were loaned from China for this exhibition also provided some insight on the various negotiations that had to take place between government institutions in China. It was also interesting to think that there was a need to consider political sensitivities when presenting information about the objects on display.

It was great to be able to learn more about the exhibition through the Q&A and additional activities about this exhibition, such as the Curator’s Introduction are being organised throughout the duration of the exhibition. Based on what I learnt on our trip, I will definitely be trying to attend more of these events.

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The ‘Ribbed Liver’ and Victorian Body Parts

This post was contributed by Emma Curry, a PhD student in the Department of English and Humanities, working on Dickens’s representations of objects and body parts and Beatrice Bazell, a second year PhD student, working on representations of the female body in art and literature.

Credit: Barts Pathology Museum

Credit: Barts Pathology Museum

Barts Pathology Museum in West Smithfield is an absolute treasury of fascinating bodily bits. Of all the grisly bodily curiosities on display, however, one of the most compellingly Victorian has to be Specimen N.192: the ‘tight-lacer’s liver’ (right). Caused by the constant wearing of a corset, the liver on display in the museum collection has been deformed to the extent that it has a deep groove within it, caused by the impression of the owner’s ribs.  Further information (and some more rather grisly pictures!) can be found on the exhibit on the museum’s blog.

This liver is a fascinating indication of the extent to which body parts both impressed and were impressed upon in nineteenth-century culture, and provided part of the impetus for the Victorian Body Parts Conference, held on 14 September at Barts Pathology Museum. The conference was organised by Beatrice Bazell and Emma Curry, two PhD students in the English department at Birkbeck, who are both working on representations of the atomized body in Victorian culture. The event sought to uncover the significance of these meticulous approaches to bodily form in the nineteenth century, exploring them from a range of different perspectives, in everything from medical reports to art and film.

The day left no part unprobed: Katharina Boehm (Regensburg) discussed the body of the child as a tool within Victorian medico-psychical discourses; Kate Hill (Lincoln) reflected upon the skull’s potency in nineteenth-century museum culture; and Tiffany Watt-Smith (QMUL) considered the mutual fascination of the theatre and science in analysing Victorian ideas about imitation and mimicry. Ellery Foutch (Courtauld) discussed legendary Victorian bodybuilder Eugen Sandow’s famously muscular arm; Ryan Sweet (Exeter) uncovered the surprisingly frequent appearance of the wooden-leg-as-weapon in sensation fiction; and Ally Crockford (Exeter) discussed the portrayal of diphallicism in medical literature on congenital birth defects.

The event uncovered the burgeoning critical field of body-part-studies in this period, and fostered some fascinating conversations on the various ways in which the Victorians shaped their bodies from within and without. All the while, the tight-laced liver floated serenely on a shelf in the background, a timely reminder of the extent to which these debates remain arresting today. In an age of extreme cosmetic surgery and television programmes that fascinatedly document unusual parts for our entertainment, such as Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies, the parallels with the Victorian period are clear. Here’s hoping, however, that the ‘ribbed liver’ remains a historical curiosity!

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‘Spectacle and the Sublime: Romantic Visuality and Contemporary Exhibition Culture’

This post was contributed by Luisa Calè, Course Director of MA Romantic Studies

The Birkbeck Eighteenth-Century Research Group and the Nineteenth-Century Forum welcomed Tate Curator Martin Myrone, who inaugurated Arts Week in the Birkbeck Cinema to discuss Spectacle and the Sublime in Romantic period exhibition culture and the curatorial work involved in recreating its spectacular possibilities today.

Locating Romantic pictures involves confronting the physical sites and practices of an emerging exhibition culture. Representations of the Royal Academy Exhibitions in 1787 and in the Microcosm of London in 1808 show us crowded interiors in which pictures hanging wall to wall and floor to ceiling required spectacular effects in order to stand out against their neighbours.

Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare, exhibited in 1782, shows the sensational ingredients that turned Fuseli into the painter of the sublime and the supernatural. The exhibition Gothic Nightmares (2006) recreated the gothic pleasures that Fuseli’s supernatural activated amid a range of visual spectacles, including the moving image spectacle of the phantasmagoria. From sensational tales of terror to visual entertainments that pioneered the moving image, exemplified in a dark room at the heart of the exhibition, where Mervyn Heard reconstructed the haunting effects of the phantasmagoria from historic slides animated with contemporary technology.

Romantic moving images are also central to the light and sound show Tate Britain commissioned for the exhibition of John Martin: Apocalypse (2011-12). Martin’s religious sublime comes alive in this installation of the triptych: The Plains of Heaven , The Last Judgement, and The Great Day of his Wrath start moving illuminated by a play of projected lights punctuated by music and voice-over scripted with words taken from the Bible, the exhibition pamphlet and contemporary reviews. This contemporary animation recreates the sensational appeal of the pictures’ tour across England and the United States in the 1850s and 1860s.

Click for a Curatorial Walk Through the Exhibition, and Martin’s discussion of The Apocalyptic Sublime in the Age of Spectacle.

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Manga Studies come to Birkbeck

This post was contributed by Novella Gremigni, a PhD student in Japanese Cultural Studies in Birkbeck’s Department of Media and Cultural Studies.

Lately two events about manga culture have shown fresh views on the growing influence of Japanese popular culture. Organized by Dr Shinji Oyama (Birkbeck), and co-hosted by the London Asia Pacific Cultural Studies Forum (LAPCSF) and the Centre for Media, Culture and Creative Practice, both events were quite successful in terms of audience and participation.

The first of the two manga-related events was designed to welcome visiting scholar Mariko Murata into the Department of Media and Cultural Studies at Birkbeck College.

Dr Murata described her fascinating research in front of more than fifty attendees. She graciously introduced us to the world of Japanese comics and their museums. As she illustrated her impressive work, for which she spent a considerable amount of time going around museums and conducting surveys, I learnt that a growing number of institutions are dealing with the world of Japanese comics in Japan, and attract both tourists and local visitors every year. Themes, approaches and exhibition layouts vary across museums and galleries. Some exhibitions focus on the historic or artistic value of manga and, in some cases, one can come across the pre-printed version of a comic, or take a look at the original draft drawn by the manga artist. Moreover, quite a few manga museums incorporate libraries and archives, documenting manga related materials and also offering visitors the chance to enjoy comics on site. Dr Murata explained that while it is not an easy task for museums to ‘exhibit’ manga, it gives the media a new way of appreciating them. Being culturally and demographically diverse, visitors of the manga museum can also actively interact with the works on display and ‘consume’ the exhibition material, perhaps with a different type of pleasure from reading their favourite comic book.

The discussion was moderated by Dr Lorraine Lim, lecturer in Arts Management at Birkbeck, who prompted a very interesting and active Q&A. She raised ideas and issues about the arrangement of space for a manga exhibition, about the propriety of mundane objects such as mangas for a museum environment, but also about the learning experiences these exhibitions may provide. 

The second manga event once more confirmed the never-failing interest in all things manga. Organized by Dr Murata, it was set out to give an overview of contemporary manga studies. Four speakers were invited to give short presentations on a variety of issues concerning Japanese comics. Dr Ryuichi Tanigawa, Dr Chie Yamanaka, Mr Yu Ito and Dr Sonoko Azuma were all very pleased to welcome some ninety manga enthusiasts. Simon Turner, a PhD student in Japanese Cultural Studies at Birkbeck was the discussant for this session.

The diverse nature of the presentations created a vibrant picture of the world of Japanese comics. Spanning across different areas of manga studies, the four speakers illustrated the role of architecture in the comic Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, the reception of Naruto in South Korea, the educational function of the pacifist manga Barefoot Gen, and the modalities of consumption of the female otaku (manga fanatics) who read yaoi (a manga genre depicting homosexual relationships). The audience was receptive and quite involved; questions and comments flowed from side to side. Many attendees eagerly contributed to the discussion, and stayed on for refreshments and for a chat with the speakers.

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