Research Seminar Review: Buddhism, Imperialism and Display

Buddhism, Imperialism and Display: the lives of Chinese objects in British exhibitions.

Review of research seminar, Department of Museum Studies, University of Leicester.
Wednesday, 16th January 2008

By Pippa Sherriff

At the above seminar Louise Tythacott, Lecturer in Museology at the University of Manchester, spoke of her personal research into the biographies of a group of five Buddhist deities, on display in the World Cultures Gallery at the World Museum Liverpool that opened in 2005. In writing this review I’m sure I speak for everyone else in the room in saying that her talk was enthralling and captivating.

Louise became acquainted with the deities whilst she worked at National Museums Liverpool from 1996-2003. In addition to two guardian figures, the three deities are:

Guanyin - Goddess of Compassion, almost life-size, bronze, extremely rare and early 15th century. This is the most important deity of Chinese culture.

Wenshu - Bodhisattva of Wisdom, 17th century.

Puxian – Bodhisattva of Grace and Compassion, also 17th century.

All five had been in storage, well sawdust and breakfast cereal boxes at least, since the Liverpool Museum was heavily bombed during World War Two and most of the collections, including the deities, were evacuated. Although the museum did eventually re-open in the 1960s, these particular objects had stayed in their inadequate storage facilities until the 1990s. In her subsequent post at National Museums Liverpool Louise was then responsible for the overseeing the conservation and redisplay of the Guanyin, Wenshu and Puxian objects but with no accompanying accession details or provenance. And that might well have been the end of the story had Louise not, quite by chance, come across an image of a watercolour of the Great Exhibition 1851 that clearly depicts all five deities prominently displayed in the central avenue, in itself portraying great significance. And even more uncannily, the watercolour shows that they were positioned exactly as Louise had done some 150 years later and against a red silk background. From this point she was able to look back to the exhibition catalogues at the V&A and begin to unfold their collective biographies. The fate or whereabouts of an incense burner and the silk banner is however.

Louise first discovered that all five originated from Putuo, a sacred Chinese island and pilgrimage site, that in the 17th century would have been covered in temples and a key place for the worship of Guanyin. Moreover deities were perceived as living beings. They were consecrated with their eyes doted to open them to the world. The insides were hollow and manuscripts put inside before being sealed. In effect the figures do not represent deities but rather they are deities in themselves. However, over the passing centuries, many of the temples and their contents were destroyed and finally, during the Chinese Revolution 1966-1976, those remaining were raised to the ground and all details of histories burnt. The plight of these five particular deities had been intercepted during the First Opium War, 1839 – 1842, when a British army officer, Major William Edie had plundered them whilst serving in Putou. The use of the term looting is ascribed to this time and is derived from a Hindu word meaning to rob. Obtaining Trophies of War in this way reflected military imperialism and imperialistic power. Edie was to remove the manuscripts from inside which meant the deities effectively ‘died’.
One outcome of the Opium War was that China rejected an invite to exhibit at the Great Exhibition. The organisers, anxious to include Chinese culture, looked to 40 or so British collectors to fill this void and this is how the five deities came to be on display. From here they were transferred to the Crystal Palace and then bought by a diamond dealer who may well have been responsible for removing some of the inlaid jewels. In 1857 the deities were on display at the Manchester Art Treasures exhibition. Although this particular event had a focus on western fine art, Guanyin was displayed in the ‘Oriental Court’ and such exposure added greatly to the financial value of these Chinese figures. In 1859 they were subsequently auctioned at Sotheby’s and bought by an antiquarian, Charles Roach Smith, for the costly sum of £225.

In 1867 Charles Roach Smith gave his collection to the town of Liverpool and it was to form the basis of the Liverpool Museum (a development from the ‘jumbled mass’ of the previous Egyptian museum formed in 1852). The next part of Louise’s talk illustrated how the meaning of objects can change and evolve through individual aesthetic interpretations. Between 1895 and 1927 the museum introduced evolutionary displays, exhibiting objects to racial types; Caucasian ‘white races’, Mongolian ‘yellow races’ and Melanian ‘black races’. At this time the deities were exhibited as examples of the ‘Mongol’ race. With the arrival of a new curator in the 1930s the deities were exhibited with Oriental Art between 1934 and 1938. Later, whilst the objects were in store, their dominant meaning and interpretation shifted from ethnology to archaeology, then to antiquities and oriental antiquities.

When Louise first encountered the deities, in 1996, they were now part of the Asian collection. Having been in store for 60 years their condition was deplorable, some of the Guanyin arms were misplaced altogether, only 7 of the 22 symbols held were to be found and inlaid jewels were missing. However, after conversation Guanyin, Wenshu and Puxian were displayed in the World Cultures Gallery in 2005. Louise’s research has now enabled the labels to be updated and, having discovered the significance of the two guardian figures, these too have been conserved and exhibited. To the future, Louise is currently negotiating a loan of all five deities for the inauguration of Ningbo Museum in 2008/09. She is also in communication with the Putou monks about the significance of these objects to the history of the island. Having been repressed and all but eradicated, the pilgrimage site now has 2 million visitors each year.


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