Published: February 26, 2019
In 2012, Hiromi Kinoshita became the Hannah L. and J. Welles Henderson associate curator of Chinese art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA). Her task? Research the museum’s Chinese art collection, produce a catalog and reinstall the galleries. Kinoshita’s research came to fruition in December, 2018, with the museum’s release of the 264-page fully illustrated collection catalog titled Art of China, Highlights From the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and three months later in February, the curator unveiled the newly reinstalled Chinese art galleries. We caught up with Kinoshita to hear about the new galleries and to talk about the Chinese art collection held by the PMA, which is one of the earliest public institutions in the United States to begin collecting art from China.
How was the collection formed? Were there any notable figures who contributed to it over the years?
The collection was formed through the donations of collectors and supporters – in the early times, they were the movers and shakers of Philadelphia. Notable figures include fine porcelains from the founder of the Children’s Hospital. The museum was also lucky to have a director early on who was interested in Asian art. Langdon Warner, who was a Monuments Man, was always traveling in Asia and helped purchase many Chinese works for the collection. He and his student, Horace Jayne – the nephew of Frank Furness, the architect – who became curator of Asian art, procured our three spectacular Chinese interiors – a Buddhist temple ceiling, a Reception Hall and lacquer panels from a Scholars Study – in the 1920s. One name you don’t expect to be associated with the museum is Mrs Henry Breyer (of the Philadelphia ice cream company) who donated her collection of Chinese robes and textiles.
What impact did the World’s Fair Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 have on the collection?
The Centennial Exhibition or World’s Fair, which was held in nearby Fairmount Park and attracted more than ten million visitors over six months, helped showcase the arts of China and entice collectors. After the Centennial closed, the PMA purchased 20 pieces which would form the beginnings of the Chinese collection.
How are the new galleries arranged and what kinds of objects and art can visitors expect to see in each one?
I chose four themes to highlight important and distinctive concepts in Chinese art and culture that give context to the objects and tell engaging stories. The first gallery, about belief in the afterlife, highlights funerary art – so ceramic models placed in the tomb to accompany the deceased from about the Second Century to the Eighth Century are on display. The second gallery looks at our place in nature and the cosmos and features paintings and objects used and collected by scholars and artists from the Tenth Century onwards. The third gallery looks at interactions and exchange between China and countries to the west, from the Sixteenth Century on. By looking at different art forms (porcelain), and techniques (glass and enameling) that were exchanged between China, Europe and America, visitors might think about what is “Chinese.” The last theme is about meaning and order, and art collected by the emperor and his court, which were specifically coded with meaning, are displayed in this gallery. Contemporary works are also displayed alongside traditional works to show that these ideas continue and are relatable up to today.
What is the largest visual change that returning visitors can expect to see in the Chinese galleries?
The space feels larger, airier and generally more welcoming. The different views one is afforded standing in the galleries – whether looking at the objects, looking out of the window, or into another gallery – also makes for a more interesting and stimulating experience. The objects also feel much more accessible thanks to the new casework and lighting.
Can you tell me about some of the conservation projects you took on for this?
We had many conservation projects going on, even leading up to before we closed the galleries for construction and the reinstallation. This is because conservation work takes time and planning. Two years ago, we started conserving a damaged black lacquer gilded wardrobe, which is now on display in the Reception Hall. The most dramatic changes were with the ceramic tomb figures. Some of the figures were encrusted with dirt (being archaeological objects) while others were broken and poorly conserved before they entered the collection. My colleagues did a fantastic job bringing back the original shine of the glazes and highlighting details you couldn’t see before.
Can you describe the impact that porcelain had on early American collecting and how you have chosen to present it in the gallery?
Porcelain was one of the major exports of China and was so treasured in countries outside of China hundreds of years ago, yet I feel many people don’t really appreciate why it was so special and how this material impacted Western civilization. Porcelain was fine, hard, attractive and clean (think of eating utensils) – this is especially apparent handling the material. These qualities were coveted by the Western world that, especially starting from the 1600s, sought to discover the recipe for making their own porcelain. In one display, I juxtapose Dutch blue and white with Chinese blue and white to explain the differences between the two and why Chinese porcelain was worth its weight in gold at one time.
You have made some changes to the windows to accommodate light-sensitive materials. What are some highlights that visitors can expect to see now?
The old galleries had many windows, so to create more wall space and be able to show light-sensitive material, we closed some of them. The new galleries now have a wide range of light-sensitive materials, including silk costumes and textiles, watercolors, photography and ink paintings, which present a richer view of what the art of China covers. These materials will also have to be regularly rotated, which happily also means that visitors can expect to see new art in the permanent collections on a regular basis.
Did you make any discoveries going through the collection with a fine-tooth comb?
When I first arrived, I was going through the database looking for things that could have been misunderstood or overlooked. I found a description of a set of 12 limestone sarcophagus panels from the Tang dynasty which were not clearly photographed, and someone had written on the card “dubious?” I was intrigued and traced the group of stone to crates held in off-site storage. Each of the stones weighs about 300 pounds, so not the easiest of works to move, and they were covered in dust having probably sat in storage for the past 40 years. We pulled a few out and, thanks to this project, we could clean them and established they are in fact good Eighth Century stone panels that made up a house-shaped sarcophagus for a high-status individual. We can make such “discoveries” due to recent archaeological findings.
What is your favorite object on display?
Right now it’s a piece that hasn’t been out before (not during my time anyway) and is not considered an “important piece,” but that is why I find it attractive. The mallow-form box looks like it is made from bamboo, but the design on the surface is in fact a wood veneer created by cutting up and sticking down thin strips of wood veneer. The modeling of the box itself is also so delicate and understated for a storage box (albeit an imperial one) to hold something else.
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