Review of “China displayed: ‘Glittering curiosities’ from the Celestial Kingdom in Victorian Britain”

Museum Studies Seminar Series
Monday 12 March 2007

Amy’s presentation provoked some difficult to answer questions in my mind, the most important in relation to museums being: do museums reflect popular opinion or do they create popular opinion?

First, to the subject at hand. Amy’s paper was a hugely detailed run-through of some of the ways in which the Victorian ‘public’ viewed China as based on popular media conceptions of the time and through two museum exhibitions, one at Hyde Park Corner in 1842 and the Great Exhibition of 1851. Amy set the context for the period very well – it was a time of Empire, of deference to royal authority and a time when Great Britain saw itself as on a civilising mission to bring the benefits of what it held to be progressive science, technology, art, literature to every far-flung corner of the globe where there were only 'savages' and darkness. It was very interesting that Amy picked up on the often contradictory approaches to China; not truly un-civilised but not civilised in a manner the British would recognise, a mysterious land of ‘exoticness’ that jealously controlled access to its wealth by foreigners… this created a skewed vision of what China ‘is’ and ‘was’ to the British people. This was aided and abetted by a series of conflicts cumulating in the fabulously titled Opium Wars which, in an attempt to justify their imperialistic ambitions, the jingoistic British press portrayed the Chinese as little more than savages, although the example Amy had of a cartoon showing a Chinese family looking on as a pretty and helpless Victorian female sat in a bamboo cage seems today quite tame. Nevertheless Amy captured for me in an entertaining way the confusion between admiration for the Chinese as producers of luxury commodities, loved by the upper classes and the Prince Regent most notably (although the Prince’s growing unpopularity must have contributed to the eventual unpopularity of Chinese-influenced design), and the lazy stereotypes perpetuated by a racist and xenophobic national press, supported by the Imperial ambitions of British policy-makers. As Amy said such visions of China tell us more perhaps about the West’s self-image rather than telling us anything helpful or ‘real’ about China.

And how do museums fit into this? Going back to the big question at the beginning, do museums reflect or create popular opinion, I think Amy’s paper helped me to begin to answer this question. On the one hand, museums are part of the public domain and at the time they were heavily connected with the upper and middle classes (who often funded and created them) who were likely to support the direction taken by the Government and the Monarchy. So they in many ways reflected the dominant opinion on China, the Great Exhibition for example consolidating prejudiced views of China which saw the country as backward and primitive, producing only one thing (luxury goods) and not participating in social and economic progress like the British Empire, not producing anything new. There was no attempt it seems to challenge popular views of China as exotic and mysterious, focusing on titillating glances of opium smoking and bound feet. However in reflecting these conceptions museums help to reinforce them in the public mind, so in effect re-create them for generations. Museums, being trusted institutions, are therefore in a position to be believed. At the beginning of her paper, Amy suggested that many of our views of China today are still influenced by views constructed in the nineteenth century, that they have endured, and I am very interested in this as this is one of the conclusions I have reached in my research, where our conceptions of the Middle Ages are greatly influenced by a resurge of ‘popular’ interest in the same period.

I am greatly looking forward to hearing from Amy in the future more about how changes in the political relations with China and the fall of the Empire and rise of Communism have altered popular conceptions of China and how museums have accommodated these changes. Thank you Amy for a stimulating and interesting seminar!


Amy said…
Thanks for the review Ceri. To be honest I'm sick to the back teeth of the flipping Victorians now (have been doing little else but read about them since October!), but I'm glad you found my presentation so inspiring. :) And, you've raised a couple of points I hadn't really thought about in any depth, so thanks for that too! Thanks also to Anna C and Anna W for the photos.
Ceri said…
Are you actually in that picture??? ;)

Yes I know what you mean about the Victorians, they had their finger in every pie it seems... one day I intend to find a subject they have not influenced in any way but I fear not. After all they were the instigators mainly of the world in which we live.
Amy said…

The rest of the photos from my seminar have been uploaded to our Flickr album if anyone is THAT interested! ;)

Re, the Victorians - so true. It's hard to get any from the influence of the nineteenth century. Of course, I've gone and found another two exhibitions of Chinese stuff in London post-Opium Wars, so will have to fully investigate those before I can move onto the twentieth century. It never ends..... :(

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