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#AnthroDay with the Department of Anthropology at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures

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Please stop by the Mathers Museum of World Cultures during the 12-2 pm window tomorrow for our #AnthroDay celebration with the IU Department of Anthropology. We want to celebrate with you! Everyone is welcome. Treats! Anthropology! Swag! Bring your friends! Come alone and make a connection! See the exhibits! Discover a class! Impress a professor with your new gear!

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Fieldwork: Highlights from the Basketry and Architecture Group

I have been delayed in finishing up the series on the December 2017 trip to China that colleagues and I undertook. I am happy to return to the series here. Earlier posts described sites visited in Beijing (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), partnership activities in Nanning (6, 7) and the contexts of our fieldwork in Nandan County (8). In this post I quickly highlight some of the particularly exciting moments in the fieldwork of the research team that was focused on local Baiku (White Trouser) Yao basketry and vernacular architecture. (More on the textile group later.)

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A portion of Manjiang village, a Baiku Yao community, viewed from above. December 14, 2017. Photograph by Jason Baird Jackson.

Undoubtedly, we will always remember our time with Li Guicai in Huaili village. We spent two days with him as he made an elaborate and beautiful bamboo basket for sticky rice. We video recorded nearly every moment of the making of this basket over the course of two work days in which Mr. Li worked nearly continuously. His skill and industriousness left of speechless. After the basket was complete, he offered us an rich interview on his life and the history of his work as a maker of baskets. Generously, he sold us the basket that we documented with him and it is now in the collections of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. For my friends who know about the river cane basketry of the Southern United States, Mr. Li’s basket was made with the same basic double weave techniques found in the baskets of the Cherokee and other indigenous groups.

With Mr. Li, we began to learn about how baskets are made among the Baiku Yao. In the households of two of his neighbors, we learned something of how baskets are used. Two families permitted us to spend time in their homes and inventory all of the baskets owned and used in their households. Inventorying and photographing all of these baskets, we were then able to ask questions about the names of these basket types as well as learn the range of uses to which they were put. This process helped us learn about widely used basket types but also extremely specialized basket forms that we did not previously knew existed. For instance, we documented a type of basket used as a body form for pressing pleats into a newly made women’s skirt. The diversity of baskets in use in this community is remarkable and we are very appreciative of the families who generously welcomed us for this strange but instructive exercise.

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Removing the straps that have tied a new pleated skirt in Baiku Yao style around a bamboo pleating basket in a Huaili village household. December 17, 2017. Photograph by Jason Baird Jackson

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In course of a household basketry inventory, Lijun Zhang poses with the slip of paper used in photographs of the 66th basket documented. December 17, 2017. Photograph by Jason Baird Jackson

Having learned about basket making and basket use, we also sought to better understand the contemporary economics of basketry. A highlight of this inquiry was time spent with Mr. Li Guozhong. This younger Mr. Li is a basket trader from a family of Baiku Yao basket makers. While he buys and sells locally made baskets, most of those that he sells at his stall in the Lihu town market on market day are purchased instead from middlemen in Guizhou province and transported back across the provincial border by Mr. Li to Lihu for sale to Baiku Yao and other buyers in the local market. Despite our interfering with his sales, we were able to spend the morning on market day with him at his market stand. We inventoried every type he had on offer, recording the local name for the basket type, the price, its basic use, and its local or Guizhou origins. At the conclusion of our discussions with him, I purchased a full set of these baskets for the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. A full account of the collection will come in our research writings later, but for now I note a few of the particularly unusual types that we purchased. One such item is a bamboo basket woven around a ceramic pot that hot coals can be placed and carried in. Such a basket is used as a brazier to keep an individual or small group warm while seated around it. We saw just such a basket in use elsewhere in the Lihu market. Similarly noteworthy are a pair of baskets used by a weaver to hold a shuttle (on one side of the loom) and spent spools (on the other side) while weaving. Such baskets are attached to the loom on both sides of the weaver’s seat. We saw such baskets on the household looms encountered throughout the Baiku Yao villages.

On the architecture front we documented basketry woven gates, house screens, and two types of above ground (on stilts) granaries used by Baiku Yao people. One of these—round in shape—features heavy bamboo basketry walls.

These highlights evoke just a portion of the rich experiences that the basketry and architecture team had during our time among the Baiku Yao people. My colleagues and I feel tremendous appreciation for everyone who hosted and helped us during our visit. Our admiration for the Baiku Yao people and their way of life is very heartfelt.

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The sticky rice basket made by Mr. Li Guicai, documented by the research team, and added to the collections of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. December 16, 2017. Photograph by Jason Baird Jackson.

Fieldwork: Introduction (12/13-18)

Skip ahead six paragraphs (bypass those marked with an hash mark #) if you want to go straight to the start of the fieldwork stories. If you would like to know why my colleagues and I were in China doing fieldwork, start here at the beginning. (After this post, I will do one or two more with some fieldwork highlights.)

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Manjiang village, a community within the Nandan Baiku Yao Ecomuseum. December 14, 2017. Photograph by Jason Baird Jackson.

# The China-US Folklore and Intangible Cultural Heritage Project is a binational collaboration linking the China Folklore Society and the American Folklore Society. It has been underway formally since 2007 and has included multiple project phases and, in these phases, various sub-projects. A wide range of funders have supported the project and its work and a great number of Chinese and American scholars and practitioners have participated in its activities. Among U.S. participants, special attention is often given to the Henry Luce Foundation, which has been particularly generous in supporting several phases of the project (Lloyd 2017).

# Two sub-projects occurring in two different phases of the project have a specific museum focus. Between 2013 and 2016, a sub-project titled “Intangible Cultural Heritage and Ethnographic Museum Practice” brought together six museums of ethnography—three from the United States and three from Southwest China. These museum partners organized two “Forum on China-US Folklore and Intangible Cultural Heritage” events, pursued professional exchanges of staff members, traveled together to visit local communities in the home regions of each museum, and undertook a joint exhibition and catalogue project. The resulting exhibition—Quilts of Southwest China has been touring the United States. The bilingual catalogue is distributed in the United States by Indiana University Press. These are just the formal highlights of the project. A wide range of spin-off projects and collaborative relationships also arose from this joint work (Dewhurst 2017; Du 2017; Indiana University 2013; Lloyd 2017; MacDowell 2017; MacDowell and Zhang 2016; Zhang 2017).

# A new phase of the larger project began in 2017 and it also includes a museum-focused sub-project. The new project builds on relationships and experiences arising in the preceding effort. Between 2017 and 2019, the “Collaborative Work in Museum Folklore and Heritage Studies” sub-project is bringing together researchers from the three U.S. museums (Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Michigan State University Museum, Museum of International Folk Art) with colleagues affiliated with the Anthropological Museum of Guangxi (AMGX), as well as that museum’s partners in two local ecomuseums: the Nandan Baiku (White Trousers) Yao Ecomuseum and the Sanjiang Dong Ecomuseum.

# The workshop (discussed in posts 6 and 7) was another formal part of the project, but the most crucial activity is ethnographic fieldwork in two communities—those associated with the two ecomuseums in Nandan and Sanjiang counties in Northern Guangxi. The December 2017 trip was for the first of four fieldwork efforts. On this trip, our local hosts and partners were the staff at the Nandan Baiku Yao Ecomuseum.

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A pet bird in a basketry cage in Huaili village. December 14, 2017. Photograph by Jason Baird Jackson.

# In a Chinese context, an ecomuseum is a local museum framework that encompasses a community or group of communities, often associated with a single ethnic group or “nationality.” In Nandan County, the Nandan Baiku Yao Ecomuseum is embraces three contiguous villages near the town of Lihu. These three villages are situated within a wider area where “White Trouser Yao” people reside. White Trouser Yao is a designation for a particular group of Yao people distinguished by the white knicker-style pants worn as part of local men’s dress. Ecomuseums are somewhat hard to explain in a North American context because they are not limited to a fixed museum building (although they often include gallery spaces and other buildings used for museum functions). In formal terms at least, an ecomuseum is a way of characterizing an entire community or group of communities. The ecomuseum framework then becomes a organizational strategy for cultural heritage activities, including documentary work, cultural preservation activities, and perhaps also cultural tourism. The closest analog in the U.S. would be the situation found in some Native American communities where a “tribal museum” may have a museum building but may also facilitate a range of cultural preservation activities throughout the community. Wikipedia characterizes ecomuseums as follows:

An ecomuseum is a museum focused on the identity of a place, largely based on local participation and aiming to enhance the welfare and development of local communities. Ecomuseums originated in France, the concept being developed by Georges Henri Rivière and Hugues de Varine, who coined the term ‘ecomusée’ in 1971.[1] The term “éco” is a shortened form for “écologie”, but it refers especially to a new idea of holistic interpretation of cultural heritage, in opposition to the focus on specific items and objects, performed by traditional museums.

The nature and potential of ecomuseums is a key research concern of our partners at the Anthropological Museum of Guangxi (more on that later).

In a few final post or two, I will offer some highlights of our fieldwork experience. Here I explain our topic and circumstances.

While in Nandan County, the project participants stayed in rooms connected to the offices of the Nandan Baiku Yao Ecomuseum. This offered our group the opportunity to reside in the village cluster where the museum is centered without necessitating staying spread among various host families. The simple guest rooms at the museum were created with this sort of visiting research use in mind. The arrangement meant that visitors and locals could interact meaningfully from early in the morning to late in the evening without being a burden to local families nor introducing the disruption and social separation that would have accompanied staying in a hotel distant from the communities at the center of the research. He Jinxiu, a Baiku Yao woman who is active in the work of the museum, a civic leader in the community, and a noted textile artist, was engaged to cook for the visitors with the help of a younger woman in her family and another younger woman Li Xiuying who is also a noted local textile artist. This arrangement was very appropriate to local norms and was generously arranged for by the local museum staff and supported by the AMGX. I know that the other American participants join me in expressing deep appreciation for the generous hospitality extended to us by all of our partners in the project and by the members of the contiguous villages of Huatu, Manjiang, and Huaili in which the ethnographic investigations were undertaken.

Over the course of the research visit, the participants broke into three teams. Two of these teams focused on the nexus of textile arts and cultural heritage practices that are at the center of the project. These two research teams were made up of researchers from the American museums, from the AMGX, and from the Baiku Yao ecomuseum. Work by these teams was pursued in a mixture of English, provincial Mandarin, and the local Baiku Yao language.

One of these two teams focused on fabric arts; the other focused on bamboo basketry and the related practice of incorporating woven bamboo into architectural structures such as wall screens, fences, and basketry-walled granaries. The fabric arts group documented weaving practices, indigo dying, embroidery, the making and use of clothing, and silk production. The basketry group was able to document the making of an elaborate basket from start to finish (in photographs, video, notes, interviews), inventory baskets found in two households, and document over fifty basketry types in active use. This group also interviewed a basket trader, recording the full range of types in his inventory with names, prices, uses, and other data.

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Bamboo harvested and stored for use in basket making at the home of Li Guicai in Huaili village. December 14, 2017. Photograph by Jason Baird Jackson.

The third project team, comprised of members of the AMGX staff with assistance from the Baiku Yao ecomuseum staff focused on documenting the work of the project as a whole, with the goal of being in a position to produce articles and documentary video chronicling the work of the international partnership. The three American museums also each made collections during the course of this work.

Much was learned and many questions for future research have been identified. The research concluded with travel to Nanning and, for the Americans, home to the US beginning on the 18th. In final post(s) I will share a richer glimpse of Baiku Yao cultural life and the people whom we we met.

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Jon Kay (R) and Li Guicai (L) at Mr. Li’s home in Huaili village. December 14, 2017. Photograph by Jason Baird Jackson.

References Cited

Dewhurst, C. Kurt. 2017. “Building Connectivity: China-US Folklife Collaborations.” In Metafolklore: Stories of Sino-US Folkloristic Communication, edited by Juwen Zhang and Junhua Song, 189-98. Guangzhou: Sun Yat-sen University Press.

Du, Yunhong. 2017. “Ten Years: China-US Museum Collaborations in Retrospect.” In Metafolklore: Stories of Sino-US Folkloristic Communication, edited by Juwen Zhang and Junhua Song, 214-18. Guangzhou: Sun Yat-sen University Press.

Indiana University. 2013. “IU’s Mathers Museum One of Three U.S. Institutions to Collaborate with Chinese Museums.” Accessed January 16. 2018. http://archive.news.indiana.edu/releases/iu/2013/11/mathers-museum-collaboration.shtml

Lloyd, Tim. 2017. “The Inside Story of the AFS China-US Project.” AFS News. June 12, 2017. http://www.afsnet.org/news/349609/The-Inside-Story-of-the-AFS-China-US-Project.htm

MacDowell, Marsha. 2017. “Reflections on Collaborations: The Quilts of Southwest China Project.” In Metafolklore: Stories of Sino-US Folkloristic Communication, edited by Juwen Zhang and Junhua Song, 199-207. Guangzhou: Sun Yat-sen University Press.

——— and Lijun Zhang, eds.The Quilts of Southwest China. Nanning: Guangxi Museum of Nationalities and Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Xie, Mohua. 2017. “My Two Stories.” In Metafolklore: Stories of Sino-US Folkloristic Communication, edited by Juwen Zhang and Junhua Song, 208-13. Guangzhou: Sun Yat-sen University Press.

Zhang, Lijun. 2017. “My Involvement in the Museum Exchange Projects.” In Metafolklore: Stories of Sino-US Folkloristic Communication, edited by Juwen Zhang and Junhua Song, 221-27. Guangzhou: Sun Yat-sen University Press.

After the Workshop, Before the Fieldwork (12/12)

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A photograph of the project team and special guests on the steps of the Anthropological Museum of Guangxi in Nanning. December 12, 2017. Photograph courtesy of the Anthropological Museum of Guangxi.

This is the seventh in my series of posts reporting on collaborative work and travel in China during December 2017. The first five posts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) dealt with preliminary activities in Beijing, while the last (6) post focused on the Workshop on Ethnographic Methods in Museum Folklore and Ethnology held in Nanning at the Anthropological Museum of Guangxi (AMGX) on December 11-12, 2017.

As I noted previously, the workshop together with fieldwork (discussion forthcoming) in Nandan County, were the primary activities for this trip. When the workshop concluded, two small events took place before our departure for Nandan the next day. As I noted previously, the research team met in a smaller group format to discuss plans for the work. Those discussions involved participants from the AMGX, the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, the Museum of International Folk Art, the Michigan State University Museum and most-importantly, from our hosts in Nandan County, the Baiku Yao Eco-Museum.

Prior to these practical discussions, a small ceremony featuring remarks by Director Wang Wei of the AMGX and by American Folklore Society Executive Director Tim Lloyd (whose own trip intersected for the afternoon with ours). At this gathering, successful past projects were evoked and enthusiasm for the new projects that we were then beginning was conveyed. The three U.S. museums also bestowed gifts of handmade objects from New Mexico, Michigan, and Indiana upon the AMGX and received wonderful Zhuang brocade textiles from Guangxi to add to their own collections. The exchange of such gifts has become a meaningful moment in each gathering linking the American and Chinese partner museums since 2013.

As is also customary, a group photograph was taken. For the wider contexts for our work in China within the American Folklore Society and the China Folklore Society, see this overview story on the AFS website.

Workshop on Ethnographic Methods in Museum Folklore and Ethnology

This post is the next in my series of reports on the trip to China that American museum colleagues and I took in December 2017. The Beijing posts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) were about the time that we spent in transit to Nanning, where the core of our work on the trip would begin. This is the first post to share a bit of what the trip was about, explaining what we were up to in Guangxi.

Central to the story of our time in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region is our friend and colleague Zhang Lijun. Lijun is researcher on the staff of the Anthropological Museum of Guangxi (广西民族博物馆) and she is also a research associate of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. She is essential to the museum ethnography sub-project within the China-US Folklore and Intangible Cultural Heritage Project that has linked the China Folklore Society and the American Folklore Society for over ten years of exchanges and joint projects. As she notes in her recent contribution to Metafolklore: Stories of Sino-US Folkloristic Cooperation | 文化对话:中美非物质文化遗产论坛. (Guangzhou: Sun Yat-sen University Press, 2017), she served as a translator for the founding discussions between AFS and CFS while a masters student at Beijing Normal University. A decade later, and with a Ph.D. from Indiana behind her, she is now helping lead a key project in this flourishing partnership. (For an overview of these broader efforts, see this essay by AFS Executive Director Tim Lloyd.)

Our work in Guangxi is the reason for the trip and Lijun was crucial to the planning and the doing of both parts of that work. As called for in our proposal to the Henry Luce Foundation and planned for in our partnership discussions with the Anthropological Museum of Guangxi, this trip (the first of four during the current phase of our work) had two parts–a training workshop at the museum in Nanning and then a period of jointly pursued fieldwork in Nandan County among the Baiku (White Trouser) Yao people. This post is about the training workshop, an event for which Lijun’s bilingual skills and bi-national scholarly background were essential ingredients.

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Zhang Lijun facilitating discussion during the first day of the Workshop on Ethnographic Methods in Museum Folklore and Ethnology held at the Anthropological Museum of Guangxi, Nanning. December 11, 2017. Photograph by Jason Baird Jackson.

Wang Wei, the Director of the Anthropological Museum of Guangxi, is an leading scholar in paleoarchaeology with a deep history of participating in high-level international research collaborations and a strong record of publishing in international science journals. This experience has shaped his goals for the museum’s research staff. He is eager for them to also have international research experiences and opportunities to work jointly on publication as well as exhibition projects. Those goals are part of what we are up to in the current phase of cooperative research. They also motivate his providing generous support for our joint work. Those of us connected to the American museums share these aspirations.

Because the entire research and collections staff of the Anthropological Museum of Guangxi is too large to participate in the fieldwork phase of the project, the December 2017 workshop was developed as a means of broadening the professional development opportunities that the larger project offers. The workshop was held on December 11-12 and its focus was “Ethnographic Methods in Museum Folklore and Ethnology.”

During this event, American and Chinese participants, drawn from the partner museums, gave bilingual presentations on fieldwork methods as these pertain to work of museums of ethnography. About sixty attendees attended the workshop. Some were students affiliated with universities in the city of Nanning and, as initially anticipated, quite a few were members of the Anthropological Museum of Guangxi’s research and collections staff. There were also working ethnographers from various agencies in the city. A fourth group of attendees were staff members drawn from the ten local eco-museums with which the Anthropological Museum of Guangxi partners in its 1+10 eco-museum collaboration. These eco-museum representatives are members of the local minority groups that their institutions serve and they are active with impressive cultural documentation work in their home communities. The workshop sessions, which all took place at the museum, were well-attended and well-received.

The workshop program was comprised of seven presentations interspersed with questions and discussion. All were illustrated with bilingual slides and all were translated into the language (English or Mandarin) not spoken by the presenter. I presented an overview of ethnographic methods in the contexts of research design and the goals of museum work. My presentation introduced and connected the topics to be addressed by the other presentations. I was followed by Marsha MacDowell (Michigan State University Museum), whose presentation focused on interview methods. Jon Kay (Mathers Museum of World Cultures) focused on survey methods as well as on video documentation techniques. Carrie Hertz (Museum of International Folk Art) explored the uses of still photography in research, exhibitions, publication, and other museum activities. Kurt Dewhurst (Michigan State University Museum) presented on the use of existing collections in new field research and on the role that new ethnographic work can play in re-contextualizing such collections. Gong Shiyang (Anthropological Museum of Guangxi) presented on the role of eco-museums as research centers and on the partnership linking AMGX and its 10 partners in Guangxi. Fan Miao Miao (Anthropological Museum of Guangxi) presented on strategies for ethnographic research on dress and adornment practices.

At the conclusion of the workshop on December 12, research participants from the three U.S. partner museums, from the AMGX and from the Baiku Yao Eco-Museum in Nandan met to discuss the research plan for the joint fieldwork that would follow.

Here are some pictures from the first day of the workshop.

Here are some images from the second day of the workshop.

One of the temporary exhibitions on display at the museum is an exhibition produced in partnership with the Museum of Women and Children in Beijing (the museum we visited earlier in our trip). This exhibition is interesting because it deals with a classic ethnographic topic (“Brocade Made by Minority Nationalities in China”) in a kid-friendly way. Here are some pictures.

The Ethnic Costume Museum at the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology (12/9)

In the previous post in this series, I described how my traveling companions and I visited Beijing’s 798 Art Zone. (For the series in order, see 1, 2, 3, and 4.) After that stop on December the 9th, we visited one more Beijing museum. This one was a new one for everyone. Carrie researched it and put it on our agenda—The Ethnic Costume Museum at the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology (BIFT). We were uncertain what to expect, but we speculated that it would be a small university museum.

It won’t take many words to tell the story. We were extremely impressed. The museum is not richly contextualizing and interpretive in approach (as more and more university museums work to be) but its collections are outstanding and they are beautifully presented in large, comfortable galleries. For scholars interested in dress, adornment, and textile history in China, it is a definite must-see.

The museum is located on an upper floor of a multi-use academic building in the midst of the BIFT campus. Discovering this, one presumes further that the space will be small, as many similar university galleries in the United States often are. But on arrival up the stairs, this speculation is dispelled. The galleries go on and on. You can check out an English language web page for the museum here: http://english.bift.edu.cn/department/ethniccostumemuseum/index.htm It begins:

The Costume Museum at the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology (BIFT), founded with the approval of Beijing Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage, is the first museum specializing in ethnic costumes in China. The Museum is also a cultural research institute integrating collection, display, research, and teaching.

BIFT Costume Museum covers a floor space of 2,000 square meters, with several major exhibition halls: Han Nationality Costume Hall, Ethnic Minority Costume Hall, Miao Nationality Costume Hall, Metalworking Jewelry Hall, Brocade Embroidery and Wax-printing Hall, Olympic Uniform and Ceremony Costume Hall, Picture Hall, and Hands-on Workshop (for teaching and academic exchange).

As the top specialized costume museum in China, it has a fine collection of over 10,000 pieces of costume, accessories, fabric, wax printing, and embroidery. The collection is displayed in different categories, such as costumes of Miao nationality, metalworking jewelry, folk wax printing, and fabric. The museum also has a collection of nearly 1000 precious photographs taken during the 1920s and 1930s featuring the ethnic costumes of Yi, Zang, and Qiang nationalities.

That is all true. Here I share some of our photographs from the visit, which was the high point of our day and great preparation for the work we would begin in Guangxi the next day.

When we arrived, we noticed a sign that indicated that no photography was allowed. This left us crestfallen. We started taking in the exhibitions and noticed that all the other visitors were taking pictures and that the staff was completely aware of this. On investigation, it was flash photography that was prohibited. As a result of these factors, as well as the appropriately dark galleries (appropriate because textiles are being put on display for extended periods, raising the problem of light damage) our photographs are dark and rushed.

In honor of our generous hosts in Nandan County, I present the Baiku Yao men’s outfit on display at the museum before posting a sample of other images from the museum.

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The “Men’s attire of the white-pants Yao branch of the Yaozu people” at the Museum of Ethnic Costumes. December 9, 2017. Photograph by Jason Baird Jackson.

Beijing’s 798 Art Zone, Revisited, Again (12/9)

After visiting The Museum of Women and Children (See part 3 here), our group checked in with the Beijing arts neighborhood known as 798. (For background on 798, see wikipedia here, but know that the essay needs a refresh.) This area was the focus on an exhibition (just deinstalled last week) that I did last year at the MMWC with help from Luo Wenhong of the Yunnan Nationalities Museum. For Jon Kay, it was his first visit, but for Carrie Hertz, Marsha MacDowell, Kurt Dewhurst, and I it was a revisit. Jon already had a good sense of the place from our discussions (and from the exhibition photographs that he walked by almost every day at the MMWC since April). For the rest of us, it was our reaction that was new.

We know well—from Wenhong’s historical and ethnographic work there and from our own brief visits—that the neighborhood is an always changing place. But this visit caused us to believe that 798 has really now turned another corner. Of the group, I had visited 798 most recently. In May 2016, I captured over 700 images of the neighborhood trying to document its sidewalk visual culture for the exhibition. (“Beijing’s 798 Art Zone” was presented at the MMWC from April 6 to December 17, 2017.) Discussing such things as the gentrification and new high-rise construction that presses in on the neighborhood, the increased presence there of major corporations and their promotional imagery, and a transition from confrontational street art to fun, selfie-friendly graffiti and amusing sculpture, I tried to suggest the ways that 798 is changing. I also tried to evoke some of the factors that were making the neighborhood a different kind of destination, while also noting the slipping away of the artistic cutting edge that other observers have noted. As my efforts were in the spirit of visual and urban anthropology rather than an effort in contemporary art criticism, I did not take a particular stance on these changes, just tried to convey a sense of them.

All that to say that a contemporary arts district is not the kind of place that any of us would visit expecting to find cultural continuity. At the same time, our visit in 2017 did surprise us with how rapidly things can change. It is hard to sort out day-to-day, and season-to-season variations, but the contemporary-art-first version of 798 seemed defeated as judged by its street-level visual culture, as we experienced it last month. Some iconic graffiti and fiberglass sculpture remains. Some of the more robust galleries and retail shops are still there, but in the course of about nineteen months, a lot had disappeared or been degraded. Through its various earlier phases as an arts zone, a kind of playful-but-edgy aesthetics dominated the neighborhood’s visual culture. That aesthetic was haphazard in the sense that it was not centrally coordinated, but it was coherent in the sense that there was the kind of coherence that is the hallmark of many successful art colonies and artistic “schools.” The aesthetic last month had tipped over into the haphazardness of the flea market. (As folklorists, we love flea markets, but the change is noteworthy.) Unlike on recent visits, there was also a lot of empty real retail space.

In the 2017 MMWC exhibition, I showed the store front of the +86 Design Store’s 798 branch, using it as a way of talking about how a commercial culture of cute and of design had been progressively overtaking the oppositional style of the neighborhood. On the latest revisit, +86 had partitioned off the back of the store and seemed to be renting it out as office space, thus reducing significantly the amount of goods available for sale and giving the place an aura of decline. Similarly, suggesting how an exhibition such as the MMWC 798 show is almost immediately obsolete is the case of the Sony display space that I pictured in the exhibition. I used the Sony exhibition space (bright and fresh in 2017) to evoke the ways that corporations were colonizing the neighborhood as a way of connecting with the many visitors that stroll its streets but also as a way of capturing something of the neighborhood’s residual cool factor. On our revisit, the Sony exhibition space was gone and it appeared that a failed spa had already come and gone in its place. The space was not in use. (It is not clear if Sony’s space had always been intended to be short-lived. For an occasional visitor, it is sometimes hard to track the differences between temporary commercial/corporate/foreign government exposition/exhibition spaces and longer-term endeavors.)

Different parts of the neighborhood are faring differently and, despite it being winter, there were plenty of visitors out walking and exploring the neighborhood. It is still, as described in the exhibition, a destination for making selfies and for more professional photo shoots. But emblematic of the newest incarnation of 798 for us was the store called in English “Iran”. As the name suggests, the store offers Persian art and objects. There are familiar kinds of objects such as woven rugs, but then there are (many) less familiar (to me, at least) paintings (?) on black velvet. Iran was crowded with people and crowded with what cultural critics in the west would call  (perhaps misperceiving what they see) orientalist kitsch mixed with textiles, metalwork and other genres with less ambiguous roots in Iran. To see something what Iran in 798 looks like, check out this short YouTube video published soon after our visit. Iran seems to be part of a changing culture of exhibition in 798. As the edgy aura wears off, but as people continue to visit (but, it seems to me, to not spend very much money), the neighborhood becomes useful for quirky soft-power projects. Iran’s place in 798 casts a new light on the Israeli chamber of commerce’s presence in 798 (noted on my last visit) and its activities hosting expo-like events in the neighborhood. (Iran is almost across the street from the Israelis.) Along the same lines, 798 is similarly home to a branch of the Beijing Goethe Institut.

The shift to a more random retail footing can also be seen in other new businesses getting going in 798. An example is the “Custom Barrrl [yes, three Rs, no E] Scotch Whisky Exchange”. The most dramatic new architectural presence is a building marked in English “798 Art Auction Center.” I have not found information online about what is going on with it.

Unlike the rest of the neighborhood, UCCA (Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art) seemed to basically be as it had been on past visits. But a quick Google search shows that it too has been changing recently. For those interested in the state and fate of UCCA, check out this story in the South China Morning Post. The 2017-10-9 story begins with these headlines:

Beijing contemporary art space UCCA sold to Chinese investment group, securing future of 798 Art District landmark

Deal for Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art ends year of uncertainty, and director is hopeful its new status as a foundation will help it raise funds, improve its exhibitions and attract more visitors.

It actually isn’t true that UCCA seemed unchanged at street level. Reviewing our photographs, I recall the shock I felt in seeing that the museum was hosting a bamboo basketry class. Those who know my own enthusiasms can imagine that I see this as a change for the better. Probably so, and in my book this is a rather cutting-edge thing for them to be doing, but still it would have seemed preposterous that UCCA would have had such classes at the time of our first visits there.

Things seemed less promising for us at at the Enjoy Museum of Art, which appeared to us to have closed. (Let me know if you know otherwise.)

Other new developments: a decorate-your-own-ceramics place, more kid-oriented retail and amusements, lots of boutiques with sophisticated women’s wear, many street vendors selling the kind of foods one can get in Chinese city parks (candy glazed strawberries on a stick, for instance), and lots of card-tables-on-the-sidewalk retail of used and simple domestic goods (these in particular contribute to the flea-market vibe) and tchotchkes. As is true everywhere in Beijing now, rental bicycles are ubiquitous in 798 and they crowd at the entrances to the district.

Of course, a series of quick visits and walkabouts are not the same thing as sustained attention, historical, ethnographic, or otherwise. It is not possible to fully understand the state and fate of 798 without deep knowledge of the political economy and culture of Beijing, China, and the international worlds of art, culture, and discourse in which these intersect and entwine. I am glad that there are in-the-know scholars working on these larger contexts in which 798 has a place.

As we entered 798 on this visit and approached the visitor center, we noticed that the sculpture on the left had been replaced by the less unnerving one on the right…

 

The Museum of Women and Children | 中国妇女儿童博物馆 (12/9)

This is the third 2017 China trip post. As in the two (1, 2) previous posts, it reports on adventures in Beijing with Jon Kay (my MMWC colleague) and Carrie Hertz (of the Museum of International Folk Art). On the second day in Beijing, we were thrilled to be joined by our friends and colleagues from the Michigan State University Museum—Marsha MacDowell and C. Kurt Dewhurst.

Our goals for December 9th were pretty ambitious. In the morning we went to The Museum of Women and Children, China’s “first state-level museum focusing on women and children.” Because the museum previously hosted the U.S. exhibition The Sum of Many Parts: 25 Quiltmakers from 21st-Century America (here and here), it was well known to Marsha (who was central to the earlier traveling exhibition—a project that Jon was also involved in). Marsha and Kurt told us of the extensive and detailed textile exhibitions they saw previously at the museum (and that are still announced on the English website…). Sadly the museum was rather deserted on our arrival. It soon became clear why. Most of the exhibitions were recently taken down, leaving the galleries rather empty. We saw where the great textile exhibitions had been and we quickly saw the remaining history exhibitions and then we kept moving. Later in the trip—when we got to Nanning—we would see an exhibition that gave us hope for the Museum of Women and Children, but at this stage, we just departed the museum a bit disappointed and looking ahead to our next stop—Beijing’s 798 Art Zone.

The Temple of Heaven | 天壇 (12/8)

This briefer note is the second on our recent trip to China. The context for this travel will come (I hope) a few posts down the road. For now, perhaps you can just go with it. For the first post in the series, see The IU Gateway Office and Tsinghua University Art Museum (12/8).

After our group’s visit to the Tsinghua University Art Museum we ended the day with a visit to the Temple of Heaven (天壇). Wikipedia’s account (or whatever you can access) is probably sufficient for those who are curious about what the Temple of Heaven is about. In a nutshell, it is an impressive temple complex dating back to the early 1400s and was a key site for imperial sacrificial rituals. It is comprised numerous surviving buildings and beautiful grounds. For our interest as museum-types, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (number 881, to be exact). While it clearly attracts a significant number of visitors, visiting it (late in the day, in winter?) was certainly different from visiting the Forbidden City, where one typically becomes one tiny fish in a single vast, densely packed school of fish swimming straight through the complex from one end to another.

As earlier in the day, the companions were Jon Kay, Carrie Hertz, and Jason Jackson. At the Temple of Heaven we arrived too late in the day to enter any buildings, but we were able to stroll the grounds and see some of the buildings from the outside. Like so many monumental sites in China, one rarely has enough time to see the whole destination properly. Visiting when we did though, we really enjoyed the quiet contemplative nature of the experience. Many of those at the site were, like us, having a park visit experience as much or more than they were having a historical buildings experience. Of course, our state of reverie did not keep us from attending to the buildings, which were great. (A bit more text follows the images.)

Carrie and I, on an earlier trip’s visit to the Forbidden City, had noticed the English language signs pleading for no scratching. At the time, this had not made full sense to us, although we of course understood the impulse to protect these ancient monuments. At the Temple of Heaven, we were able wander without rushing or bumping into other people and thereby got a close look at the problem these signs work to prevent. You can see both the signs and some scratches in the images here.

We figured it out with some smart phone help, but one of the reasons that we were late in the day getting to the Temple of Heaven is that our taxi driver delivered us to the Temple of Heaven Holiday Inn (not yet a UNESCO World Heritage site), which it turns out is not exactly right by the Temple of Heaven itself. This meant that what we lost in terms of time spent at the site, we gained in terms of a walk through a not particularly touristy but elder-rich Beijing neighborhood. Posted here are some pictures for our families, friends, and other interested folks.

Thanks as always to my great travel companions. For deciding on the Temple of Heaven, thanks go especially to Carrie.

The IU Gateway Office and Tsinghua University Art Museum (12/8)

This post is about a portion of my recent trip to China. The main focus of this trip was collaborative ethnographic research in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, but other activities happened along the way. This post about the morning of December 8, 2017 and my companions for the day were two friends and colleagues–Dr. Carrie Hertz, Curator of Textiles and Dress at the Museum of International Folk Art and Dr. Jon Kay, Director of Traditional Arts Indiana and Curator of Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Indiana University.

After traveling from the U.S. to Beijing, our first morning in China was devoted to a visit to the Indiana University China Gateway Office, which is adjacent to Tsinghua University in Beijing. There we met with China Gateway Director Steven Yin and IUPUI Recruitment Coordinator and Assistant Office Manager Peter Wen. We spent some time at the Gateway discussing China-related projects (including our own) and then Peter walked us across the Tsinghua campus for our visit to the remarkable Tsinghua University Art Museum (TAM), where Steven had arranged for us to meet with colleagues and see the museum.

 

At TAM we met with Ge Xiuzhi from the research department and Wang Ying from the education and external relations department. They were generous hosts with whom we shared tea and luxurious visits to the museum’s spacious and beautiful galleries. Our interests gravitated to some of our favorite topics–textiles and dress, architecture, and furniture. Here are some images from “Architecture China,” an exhibition that tells the story of a group of vernacular architecture researchers while also introducing architecture students (and everyone else) to the key techniques in the national architectural tradition.

 

A key exhibition at TAM at present is a large overview exhibition titled “Tsinghua Treasures: Exhibition of Tsinghua University Art Museum Collection.” It is very large and presents a rich sample of the museum core collection. As reflected in this sample of our images, we devoted a lot of time to the textile section, which is rich in items of dress and adornment.

 

We could have spent more than one day just studying the various sections of Tsinghua Treasures. We regretted neglecting some wonderful sections, including those devoted to ceramics, painting, and calligraphy.

 

We focused intently on the furniture gallery. As with the architecture exhibition, there were excellent hands-on educational stations in this gallery that helped one better understand the techniques and woods used in Chinese furniture.

 

Staff from the Tsinghua University Art Museum visited Indiana University during May 2017. On that visit I attended a presentation at the Eskenazi Museum of Art at which the Eskenazi staff (and I) were given a exciting overview of this new museum’s work and collections. It was wonderful to be able to follow up on this presentation and to see the TAM itself in the company of very generous hosts and my wonderful colleagues.

Our visit to the Tsinghua University Art Museum

A view of our group and the grand staircase at the Tsinghua University Art Museum. (L-R) Peter Wen, Ge Xiuzhi, Jon Kay, Carrie Hertz, Jason Jackson. December 8, 2017. Photograph courtesy of Ge Xiuzhi.

 

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