Reframing Ancient China: A Multi-perspective Study on Neolithic Pottery Displays in Modern Chinese Museums

Responsible for the doctoral project: Sofia Bollo, M.A.
Funded by: URPP Asia and Europe
Project duration: since September 2013
Doctoral committee: Prof. Dr. Hans Bjarne Thomsen, Art History Institute, Section for East Asian Art/URPP Asia and Europe; Prof. Dr. Mareile Flitsch, Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Ethnographic Museum of the University of Zurich/URPP Asia and Europe; Dr. Marzia Varutti, Post-doctoral fellow, Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages, University of Oslo
Research Field: Entangled Histories

Abstract

This project aims to compare displays of Chinese Neolithic pottery in museums in China to engage with the current practices of representation and interpretation of Chinese prehistoric past. With an emphasis on the material mediatory role of objects, this study seeks to investigate the museological construction of narratives about prehistory performed by multiple perspectives acting in their relational context. Curators, displays and visitors will be taken into consideration and constitute the threefold structure of this project. The focus on Chinese Neolithic pottery specifically uncovers perceptions of prehistory taking place in museums. By mapping conceptualized stories of curators, implemented stories in the display, and visitors’ perceived stories created through the museum experience, I am providing a new framework to analyze what has been considered and understood as ancient China. I am combining insights on different exhibition strategies following art history or ethnographic paradigms, with revaluations processes of prehistoric cultures reconsidered for their aesthetic achievements, in the context of the unprecedented boom of museums in China, through a multi-sample and multi-perspective comparative approach. Intertwined theoretical models and assumptions are guiding the analysis of my original data and constitute the multidisciplinary theoretical foundation upon which this study is carried out. The multi-perspective comparison in this study is based on original data gathered during fieldwork in selected Chinese museums, which permanently display Neolithic cultures. The data are available to me in form of interviews, questionnaires, pictures and videos. Throughout the study relevant questions will be answered, such as how much and in what ways are Western exhibiting traditions part of Chinese practices? To what extent are Chinese prehistoric objects considered ‘art’ in museums in China? Is the aesthetization of ‘primitive art’ only a cross-cultural practice? What do visitors prefer to see? Despite the rapid development of Chinese museums, not enough research has been done on their display practices and especially on their visitors. Research dealing with objects used to recreate the ancient past in museums situates itself in diverse anthropological, archaeological, art historical and museological disciplines. I will contribute to the growing literature of those academic disciplines with the publication of my doctoral thesis in form of a monograph.