Travelling Stories

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Back in late 2018 Buxton Museum and Art Gallery invited expressions of interest from museums and galleries wishing to acquire objects from a large miscellaneous educational collection from the former Derbyshire and Derby Schools Library Service. The opportunity to acquire Chinese objects from this collection was of considerable interest to us at Manchester Museum as, at that point, we were in the very early stages of developing our new Chinese Culture Gallery. This guest post from Bryan Sitch, Deputy Head of Collections, and Naomi Kashiwagi, Student Engagement Coordinator, describes one of the ways in which some of these objects have been used as part of an innovative online project, working with Chinese students at the University of Manchester.

Although Manchester Museum’s own Chinese collection is sizeable, the forthcoming Chinese Culture Gallery will be the first ever permanent gallery devoted to Chinese culture in the history of the Museum. Alongside our own collection, there is an even wider and richer range of Chinese objects in the collections at the Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery, both of which, along with the Museum, form the Manchester Museums and Galleries Partnership. However, what makes the Derbyshire and Derby Schools Library Service collections particularly significant is their suitability for handling: having already been used for teaching and handling, we saw a great potential for using the material to support outreach work as a way of promoting the new gallery and engaging with Chinese communities across the city.

With the help of Buxton Museum and Art Gallery staff, a visit was arranged to view some of the Chinese material. It was very exciting to see a fine embroidered red silk bridal jacket, known as a mang ao, a polychrome lintel from a Chinese temple, coins, Chinese theatre masks and shoes for bound feet, amongst other items.

Dragon carved in wood
Detail of lintel from a Chinese temple from the former Derbyshire and Derby School Loans Service.

The range of Chinese objects in the collection were also interesting in that they reflected the attitudes towards collecting and the level of understanding of Chinese culture at a specific point in time. Indeed, the ‘set of Chinese clothing’, it transpired, was in fact a composite of both male and female garments and footwear and, likewise, several of the coins that had previously been identified as Chinese, in fact turned out to be Japanese.

Silk bridal jacket
Silk bridal jacket or mang ao from the former Derbyshire and Derby School Loans Service.

It is sobering to think that China’s Cultural Revolution was raging when the objects in the Schools Library Service were being acquired and used for teaching. Since no contemporary Chinese material was added to the collection, the items not only focus on a historical depiction of China, but also pander to a somewhat stereotypical perception of Chinese culture, as with the inclusion of shoes for bound feet and theatre masks, both pre-dating the revolution of 1912. While some of the items were not what they seemed and required further work to disentangle them from colonial narratives, others were of immediate relevance. The silk bridal jacket, for instance, stood out as ideally suited to complement a fine so-called ‘Manchu headdress’ in the Manchester Museum’s own collection.

Colourful ornate head dress on a stand
Manchester Museum’s ‘Manchu headdress’, donated by Prof and Mrs Wood Jones in the 1930s

The submission of expressions of interest were duly considered and we were delighted to learn that we had been successful in acquiring a significant number of the Chinese objects. The development of the Chinese Culture Gallery meant that these objects would be used in outreach work with Chinese communities in Manchester and for display. The objects were transferred in due course to Manchester Museum, but sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic subsequently impacted on the amount of engagement work we have so far been able to carry out with communities. However, through the Travelling Stories project, funded by Esmee Fairbairn Collections Fund and facilitated by Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, we have been able to use some of the material in a series of online intercultural engagement workshops, specifically working with Chinese students.

The University of Manchester has the largest Chinese student population in Europe and the city has one of the largest Chinese populations in the UK. But the pandemic has proven challenging for many Chinese students; not only did lockdown leave some of them feeling socially marginalised, but others also suffered COVID-related racist verbal abuse. While our plans to connect with Chinese students pre-dated the pandemic, it felt even more important to reach out to them as we stared to plan virtual consultation activities. Dr Tiffany Leung, Counselling Psychologist and an Honorary Lecturer at the University of Manchester, and Naomi Kashiwagi created digital images of the Chinese objects and, using Padlet, were able to connect students with the objects virtually. Up to twenty students took part in the two intercultural engagement workshops. Through discussions around objects, we have learned a great deal in terms of understanding what the students were interested in and how they responded to the stories the objects told, not to mention the opportunity to find out their thoughts on how we should interpret the material in the forthcoming gallery.

Padlet screen grab
Using padlet to explore the objects with students

One student spoke about the significance of the colours of the Chinese theatrical masks but felt she needed to know more in order to share this with others. Another student said how useful it was to develop a better understanding of the objects by sharing knowledge and experiences. Another student regretted that objects were sometimes used to support a nationalist agenda by celebrating ‘golden ages’ in earlier periods in history. A number of students felt that modern China should be a part of the displays too.

“For me, I was just thinking about the idea that in the future maybe we can pay more attention to the similarities [between] the different countries… or not pay too much attention to the differences we have because, especially for the … for the personalities, we have the same or similar things that can make us understand each other better. That’s a fine perspective towards the future.”

Student participant

The students recommended that the displays in the Chinese Culture Gallery should be developed with both Chinese and non-Chinese experts and that Manchester Museum should also find out and respond to what Chinese people are interested in. Many Chinese young people are extremely proficient in using their smart phones, to an even greater extent than in the West, and there was a strong preference for the use of a variety of media in order to support interpretation within the gallery.

Zoom screen grab
Screen grab showing Chinese students taking part in the online workshop.

Through the Travelling Stories project we discovered that objects can be used successfully online to engage with students and that this can help to build a closer working relationship with them. Tiffany and Naomi found that the best way to reach out to the students was by speaking to them in their mother language. So successful was this that several Chinese students who were in China took part in the workshops, even though the time difference meant they had to stay up into the early hours to do so. One student also expressed interest in pusuing a museum career in the future. The transfer of the Chinese objects from the Schools Library Service has been very successful in attracting the interest of Chinese students and we intend to continue this important outreach and engagement work leading up to the opening of the Lee Kai Hung Chinese Culture Gallery in late 2022.

Manchester Museum would like to express its gratitude to Dr Tiffany Leung and Naomi Kashiwagi for leading and facilitating this work; also to Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, especially Ros Westwood, Bret Gaunt and Gordon MacLellan, for help and support in transferring the Chinese objects to Manchester Museum; and to Esmee Fairbairn Foundation for funding Travelling Stories and making possible this consultation with Chinese students at the University of Manchester.

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