Sunday, 26 February 2012

China: Journey to Sheffield

Weston Park museum in Sheffield is currently hosting a British Museum touring exhibition – 'China: Journey to the East'.  Having wanted to go and see it for a while (only partly due to my wife having a hand in installing it), I finally got the chance to go this afternoon.

The exhibition, though not the largest you’ll ever see, takes a look at a variety of aspects of Chinese culture, ancient and modern, through 4 themes – food and drink, festivals and belief, technology and play.  The objects are mostly from the British Museum, though the objects from Sheffield’s own collections and those of Manchester Museum by no means play second fiddle.

The Sheffield Museums’ contribution mainly takes the form of items from the Grice Ivories collection, which I confess I knew nothing of before today, but will definitely not forget.  My images below most definitely do not do justice to the quality of craftsmanship on show.

I was also particularly taken with the (beautifully displayed against a lightbox) shadow puppets of characters from Journey to the West – the Chinese classic tale of the Tang Dynasty monk Tripitaka’s journey to collect Buddhist scrolls from India, with a little help from a magical monkey of course.

Another group of objects also caught my eye, though I think most visitors would pass by them with little thought.  It’s the group of preserved pastries from the Astana cemetery in Xinjiang.  Apart from being fascinatingly preserved funerary objects, astute regular readers may remember that I was fortune enough to pay a visit to Astana cemetery during my trip to Xinjiang last year.

The exhibition continues until 9th April, so you’ve got no excuse for not going to see it for yourself!

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Great Museum Dinosaur Swindle

Has the title of this post grabbed your attention? Good. Now let me explain why I'm being so provocative...

When it comes to impressive museum objects, it seems that in the public's eyes it's a case of the bigger the better. Sure, people can appreciate small, delicate objects but ultimately size matters. Ultra life-sized classical or Egyptian statues, fragments of buildings, woolly mammoth skeletons and of course the daddy of all impressive objects - reconstructed dinosaur fossils.

Manchester Museum's 'Stan the T-Rex'.
(I'm not singling them out, it's just that theirs is a
particularly impressive example of a dinosaur cast)' 

These fearsome specimens tower over fascinated children, work wonders on advertising posters and mean that museum shops can make a mint out of fluffy T-Rexes. The trouble is that in Britain these 'fossils' are of course more often than not plaster casts of dinosaurs found in America, China or elsewhere. You know, places they actually once lived...

Now, I'm not trying to disparage the educational value of teaching people about dinosaurs, and I'm certainly not going to chastise any museum in these austere times for making the most of its assets. I'm also not talking about real fossils of dinosaurs and marine reptiles that did live in what is now Britain
(iguanadons, plesiosaurs etc) or museums that have casts of real specimens from their area when the original is in another museum.

But to make my point, let me ask one simple question. What if a museum that didn't have any dinosaurs in its collection suddenly bought a resin cast of an American T-Rex and made it the star of the show? The cries of 'fraud', 'fake' and 'you're supposed to be a museum, not the London Dungeon' would surely be loud enough to be heard from space. Yet museums that acquired their casts 50 years ago can milk them for all they are worth, and the public either doesn't seem to know, or doesn't seem to care.

It seems that, despite museums often claiming that their one big advantage is that they contain 'the real thing', when it comes to 20 foot high prehistoric killing machines, the public may simply not care whether they are made of bone, stone or resin.

So where am I going with this? As I said before, I certainly don't blame museums for using their casts of dinosaurs to get people in through the doors, and to be fair I've never come across a cast that wasn't clearly labelled as such. Perhaps I'm disappointed that they seem to become such big attractions at the expense of the 'real' goodies on offer, especially when they have no connection whatsoever with the museum's local area. A plaster cast of the Parthenon Marbles in Lincoln, anyone?