It is an old-fashioned fairy story. The young man was kind to the unknown traveller; he let him in to see the treasures even though the doors were closed, and, lo and behold, the traveller turned into a kind fairy and presented the poor but worthy museum with £1.25 million ($2.125 million) to redisplay its treasures. The traveller was the Hong Kong-based art collector T.T.Tsui; the gallery is the Chinese art gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum, to be opened by the Prince of Wales on 12 June.
The Victoria and Albert Museum has come in for more than its fair share of criticism in recent years, with particular attention to its building problems and curatorial strife within. But behind the scenes there has been some radical rethinking, in the vanguard of most museums, about how to interpret exhibits to the public. In the case of the Tsui gallery, the curators provided the design team, Fitch R.S., with a framework which outlined the six principal categories of Chinese life and culture: living; eating and drinking; ruling; collecting; temple and worship, and burial. Seven hundred objects (out of the museum’s collection of 35,000), spanning 3000 BC to the present day, are fitted into this scheme on the basis of detailed research into Chinese sources. This is the “material history” approach, criticised by the older school of aesthetes for using works of art as mere documents. But the curators at the V&A have not fallen into that trap: where something is exceptionally rare and fine, the labels (in English and Chinese) say so and explain why—and when did you last hear of a curator living so dangerously? Besides, say the V&A curators responsible, knowing how something was used contributes to its aesthetic appreciation. They have discovered, for example, that the large, blueish-green Longquan ware (1300-1400) dishes were used to hold oranges, which sets up an extraordinary colouristic resonance. Audience research in the early stage of the planning revealed that the general public seemed to have only one concept of Chinese art in mind, that of the “Ming vase”. The gallery therefore invites the visitor to touch a Ming vase, while explaining that not all Ming vases are particularly important or good. The mise-en-scène is richly coloured, with a huge steel-framed canopy, like the spine of a dragon, sweeping down over the space and providing light and dark areas. Published by the V&A is a companion book Chinese art and design (£19.95) edited by Rose Kerr, Keeper of Far Eastern department and head of the team responsible for the new gallery.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Daring to say “This is rare and beautiful”'