From the Summer 2015 Issue of Clef Notes Journal
On Wednesday, June 24, 2015, Chicago’s Field Museum will open a door to more than 5,000 years of Chinese history. The new exhibition, Cyrus Tang Hall of China, will be the first and only one of its kind on permanent display in the U.S. that examines Chinese culture and history from an anthropological perspective.
Drawing from a collection of over 33,000 archaeological, historical and ethnographic artifacts, the curatorial team at the Field has assembled 350 historical objects for display within the five galleries of the China exhibit. Some of the historical objects include Neolithic pottery and jades, Shang and Zhou Dynasty bronzes, Han and Tang Dynasty burial objects, Buddhist and Daoist sculptures and a collection of exquisite rubbings, textiles and paintings from centuries of Chinese culture.
Field Museum curators, coupled with its extensive collections, provides visitors with a unique perspective on the cultural traditions that underscore modern-day China. Gary Feinman, PhD., the Museum’s East Asian Anthropology curator, explains, “While art museums typically highlight the aesthetic and contextual qualities of specific objects, the Cyrus Tang Hall of China will tell stories of the people who used them, the traditions they forged, and the legacies of that history.”
One of the underlying themes of the exhibit that officials want visitors to come away with is that there is no one distinct China. They point out that the history of China is one of constant change coupled with strong cultural traditions that have managed to survive for thousands of years.
The exhibit's layout reinforces this theme. Combining a thematic and chronological approach to their plan of the exhibit, museum curators structured China’s five galleries around particular subjects, ranging from the country’s diverse landscapes to political systems to traditional beliefs and practices. The two large Guardian Lion statutes that greet visitors at the entryway are commonly situated in front of Imperial Chinese buildings, temples, and homes of the wealthy.
Steps away, the intricate beauty and symbolism found in a Qing Dynasty Official Rank Badge artifact stand in stark contrast to their use during their time as a ranking system of the dynasty’s civilian and military officials. Civilian officials wore badges with images of birds that represented virtues like loyalty and dignity to the Emperor. A badge worn by a civilian official of the first and highest rank within the Qing Dynasty revealed the image of the red-capped crane, representing the official’s diligence and devotion to the emperor. Military badges of this period often featured images of lions, tigers and animals that symbolized ferocity, bravery, and vigor.
A large portion of the exhibit’s artifacts were already part of the Field’s large in-house Chinese collection. Dr. Berthold Laufer, the first Curator of Asian Anthropology at the Field Museum from 1908 to 1934, led two large expeditions to China in the early 20th century. Acquiring close to 19,000 archaeological, historical, and folk objects spanning in age from the early Neolithic period to the early 1900s, Laufer was driven by a great love for Chinese culture and history.
In addition to the Laufer collection, the China exhibit also showcases the Field’s spectacular collection of artifacts from the Java Sea shipwreck, highlighting the exchange of Chinese ideas and goods through trade. The artifacts on display, largely cargo and personal effects of the ship's crew, were evacuated from the wreck of 12th and 13th century trading vessels, revealing the complex and sometimes daunting trade relationships that existed during this time between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors.
Continuing its vast platform of educational outreach, the Field Museum has launched a new online educator toolkit to provide free multimedia resources to educators and their students as an educational compliment to the Cyrus Tang Hall of China.
As for families and curious teens visiting the exhibit, the museum has also curated a number of free and premium lab programs intended to broaden the scope of learning associated with Cyrus Tang Hall of China.
The Arts and Spotlight-China will highlight the beauty of Chinese art forms, ancient music and dance traditions and the Giant Panda.
There are also three more technical, hands-on labs targeting the interests of teen visitors. The first program, Gaming Through the Ages: Exploring the Rise and Fall of Ancient Civilizations, will allow visitors to explore two of the museum’s exhibits, the Cyrus Tang Hall of China and Vikings. Teens will meet the scientists behind the two exhibits and go behind-the-scenes and examine what life was like thousands of years ago in China or even amongst the Vikings. In addition, lab participants will play board games throughout the week long program based on life in ancient civilizations.
Game Design: Exploring the Rise and Fall of Ancient Civilizations, will take teens back in time and investigate the culture and society of daily life in ancient China through the new exhibition. Participants will learn how China and other ancient civilizations progressed through warfare, political upheaval, trade and cultural advancement. Teens can play games about ancient civilizations and then design their own analog or digital versions.
Designing Objects with Meaning: Cultural Symbolism in Ancient Civilizations will explore artifacts recovered from the 13th century Java Sea shipwreck. Teens will learn about the meaning behind the symbols that adorn the objects and clothing that were used in daily life in ancient China. Using 3-D design tools, participants will then design and create objects that tell their own individual stories.
So there's more than enough to spark your curiosity for a taste for the Far East. Just one visit and your adventure begins.
For more information about these programs and the Cyrus Tang Hall of China, visit fieldmuseum.org. The price of admission to the new exhibit will be included in the Field Museum’s Discovery and All-Access ticket packages.
Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
Dragon Lid Box from the Java Sea Shipwreck: This ceramic lid box from the 12th - 13th Century Java Sea Shipwreck is decorated with a dragon, one of the most important mythical beasts in China. This auspicious creature appears on every type of medium from ancient pottery to imperial robes. The dragon can represent many things, including rank, power and control of natural forces (photo courtesy of The Field Museum).