Behind the Scenes
Strenuous efforts are made to stage a British exhibition in China
By Ji Jing  ·  2017-04-10  ·   Source: | NO. 15 APRIL 13, 2017
A staff member puts the Lewis Chessmen--chess pieces from 1150-1200 found on a beach on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland in 1831--into an exhibition booth at the National Museum of China on February 15 (XINHUA)

The British Museum's acclaimed exhibition, A History of the World in 100 Objects, opened in Beijing in March after a tour of cities such as Abu Dhabi, Tokyo and Canberra.

The audience turnout was larger than expected, with an average of 2,000 to 3,000 visitors per day during weekdays and nearly 6,000 on the weekends. Audience numbers are expected to grow until the exhibition ends on May 31.

The exposition was inspired by a radio series jointly produced by the BBC and the British Museum in 2010. An eponymous book penned by Neil MacGregor, former Director of the British Museum, was first published by Allen Lane in 2010.

"The series demonstrated the unique power of objects to tell diverse stories and forge global connections," said Hartwig Fischer, Director of the museum, at the opening of the exhibition in Beijing on March 1.

"Inspired by the series, this exhibition is a story told exclusively through the things that people have made—human-made objects of all kinds which have been carefully designed, and then either admired and preserved, or used, broken and discarded," Fischer added.

The exhibition features 100 objects from the British Museum's collection, beginning with one of the earliest surviving objects made by human hands—a chopping tool from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. It ends with objects which characterize the world we live in today, spanning a history of 2 million years. Nine objects from China are included, such as tomb figures from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and a solar-powered lamp and charger made in Shenzhen in 2010.

"The objects represent a jumping-off point into the societies that made them and an approach that invites visitors to consider a diverse range of cultures and societies throughout history rather than individual moments in isolation," said Fischer.


Inner coffin of Shepenmehyt, an Egyptian woman mummified 2,700 years ago, displayed at the National Museum of China on March 1 (XINHUA)

Carefully preserved

Located on the third floor of the National Museum of China (NMC), the hall of the exhibition appears dark. However, the dark atmosphere was created on purpose to meet the British Museum's light requirement, according to Hong En, an associate researcher of the NMC and chief engineer of the exhibition.

The British Museum has strict requirement for light, temperature, humidity, materials used for the display booths, as well as the weight-bearing capacity of the pedestals on which the objects sit in order to guarantee the safety of the artifacts.

"For instance, the light cast on most of the objects should be no more than 50 lux," said Hong. The lux is the international unit of illuminance—the intensity of illumination on a surface. Illuminance in public corridors is usually about 50 lux, whereas that in library reading rooms is 300 lux.

Pressed wood, for example, is not allowed to be used as building material for the booths, as the British side worries that the glue used on the wood may release chemicals harmful to the artifacts, said Hong.

Therefore Hong and his team had to search for alternatives that were both harmless and within their budget.

Samples of all the materials to build the booths were mailed to the British Museum to be tested by a third-party organization, and only those that passed muster could be used.

Sensors are installed in booths hosting objects sensitive to temperature and humidity, such as the Arabian bronze hand—a bronze hand given as an offering to a temple in pre-Islamic Yemen. Offering replicas of body parts at shrines was widespread, according to the exhibition. The data collected are recorded and sent back to the British Museum by their Chinese colleagues each day.

"The British Museum has stringent standards for artifact preservation and we have learned a lot from them in the process. As a result, our own standards have improved to approach world-leading levels," said Wang Lei, a researcher of the NMC and chief designer of the exhibition.

"As the objects have traveled to countries with vastly different weather conditions, it's understandable that the British Museum wanted to apply a strict standard for the environment in the exhibition hall in order to ensure the objects are in sound condition," said Yan Zhi, an associate researcher with the NMC who is in charge of the exhibition.


Visitors appreciate a marble statue of the god Mithras at the National Museum of China in Beijing on March 1 (XINHUA)

Meticulous design

According to Wang, the exhibition emphasizes the similarities, connections and mutual influence between different cultures rather than their uniqueness. Therefore, a style of minimalism, which seeks to strip everything down to its essential quality and achieve simplicity, was applied in the exhibition's design.

The exhibition is divided into nine sections, ordered by time. "Objects that belong to similar time periods are displayed together in the same box while important ones are exhibited alone to show their significance," said Wang.

"Arranging an exhibition is like writing an article or making a film. There are both platitudes and climaxes—the independently displayed objects such as the colossal statue of Ramesses II,

one of ancient Egypt's most famous and successful pharaohs, represent the climax, and those displayed in groups are more commonplace. This way, the audience's attention can be captured," said Yan.

The preparation for the exhibition took one and a half years, during which various matters including the design, the materials to be used and contracts were negotiated.

The exhibition marks the second collaboration between the two museums. In 2012, an exhibition featuring 148 porcelain items from the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum was put on display at the NMC. The items included those exported to Europe from China during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and those made in Europe imitating Chinese porcelain in the mid-Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), showcasing Sino-European cultural exchanges brought about by porcelain trade.

Established in 1912, the NMC plays host to over 1 million artifacts. Since it was revamped and expanded in 2011, the museum has put on nearly 30 exhibitions in collaboration with multiple museums from abroad.

"I believe the exhibition this time around will be another milestone in collaboration between the two museums and make important contributions to improving cultural exchanges and friendship between China and the UK," said Lu Zhangshen, Director of the NMC.

The exhibition will travel to the Shanghai Museum in June.

Copyedited by Bryan Michael Galvan

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