Step back in time and experience China’s Golden Age at London’s British Museum this autumn. Conveniently located a short walk from the Montague on the Gardens Hotel, the museum’s new landmark BP exhibition, Ming: 50 years that changed China, will chart the vibrant and influential history of the Ming Dynasty. We caught up with Yu-Ping Luk, the curator responsible for selecting the exhibition’s never-before-seen collection of paintings and artefacts, to find out more.
Why is it important for the British Museum to host an exhibition of this kind?
The fifty years between 1400 and 1450 are a hugely significant period in Chinese history, and given the importance of China in the world today it is a great opportunity to acquaint visitors with the long history of the nation.
What standout pieces can we expect to see?
The exhibition showcases the magnificence of Ming imperial and princely courts through a whole range of objects. Some of the highlights include spectacular artefacts excavated from the tombs of regional princes, many of them never seen outside of China. These include hats, silk costumes and even gold chopsticks once used by princes. There will be objects that showcase the connections between China and the wider world during this time, including a beautiful painting of the Adoration of the Magi by Andrea Mantegna depicting one of the Wise Men presenting a Chinese porcelain cup filled with gold to the infant Jesus.
What are some of your personal highlights from the exhibition?
There are so many! There’s a painted scroll that shows scenes of the Ming emperor enjoying different sports in the imperial palace, such as archery, golf and football. There’s tiny model furniture excavated from the tomb of a prince that includes a bed with its pillow and a towel rack that still has its cotton towel. There are paintings made for a Buddhist ritual that depict ordinary people of different professions – actors, a tattooed acrobat, an eye doctor and a mother holding her baby. These really give a sense of life in China in the early 1400s.
What did the selection process entail when picking artefacts to include in the British Museum Ming exhibition?
This exhibition focuses on a golden age in China’s history. With a few exceptions, we have selected objects exclusively from this period. This meant borrowing from ten Chinese museums and many more internationally, making this one of the most ambitious exhibitions about China ever attempted in the UK, most likely never to be repeated.
What is it about the Ming dynasty that makes it such a fascinating period in history, especially for art and design?
The Ming dynasty lasted almost three centuries, but the exhibition focuses on fifty years when some the finest objects were produced. The porcelain and other art objects of this time are renowned with good reason, reaching a level of beauty and technical sophistication that remain arguably unmatched by later periods. China was also internationally engaged during this time, when huge state-sponsored armadas reached as far as the east coast of Africa. This interaction is clearly reflected in the objects that were produced.
In what way does this exhibition uncover new perspectives on how people view the Ming empire and what new discoveries will be revealed to visitors?
The two key ideas that we would like visitors to take away from the exhibition are that Ming China had imperial and princely courts, and that these courts were internationally engaged. This is a radical departure from past understandings that focused only on the imperial capital and the impression of a closed-off nation bound by the Great Wall. Archaeological discoveries have shed light on the importance and sophistication of princes in regions across China, which remained unacknowledged until recently. The exhibition highlights the diversity of China, which, in my view, is key for understanding China today.
Tell us a little bit about the spotlight tour that will run alongside the exhibition and why it is important for the British Museum and other institutions to take part.
To celebrate Ming China, the British Museum is touring a stunning blue-and-white early Ming imperial porcelain vase to four museums around the UK from April 2014 to April 2015. The vase will be displayed alongside China-related collections at the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, Weston Park Museum, Sheffield, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, and the Willis Museum, Hampshire. The tour is part of the Museum’s ongoing programme of touring exhibitions, which allows more than three million people to see British Museum exhibitions and objects outside London every year.
Ming: 50 years that changed China will be exhibited at the British Museum from 18th september 2014 – 5th January 2015. Supported by BP. #Ming50Years
Main image credit: Portrait of Yang Hong (1381-1451). Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase–Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program, and partial gift of Richard G. Pritzlaff, S1991.77