Staff Breakfast – ‘Ming: 50 Years That Changed China’

Yesterday staff at the British Museum were given a unique opportunity to hear from the central team behind this year’s BP exhibition: ‘Ming: 50 Years That Changed China’. After refreshments in the exhibition foyer Jessica Harrison-Hall, curator, discussed the challenges of staging an exhibition for such a broad and complex subject. The Ming Dynasty was the ruling dynasty of China for 276 years, in charge of an empire spanning thousands of miles. So how to condense this history into an exhibition for the public? The art is to balance scope with scale: either to narrow the field of vision to a much smaller geographical area, or to focus on a particular time period. Therefore, the choice of 50 years, between AD 1400 and 1450, was seen as an excellent one. It enabled the exhibition team to focus on the dynasty’s burgeoning connections with the outside world during a period of great prosperity and creativity, while keeping the scope broad and supporting an international perspective.

Following the talk, staff were able to explore the exhibition during their own private view.

Portrait of an official in front of the Beijing imperial palace

The exhibition space, inside the new Sainsbury’s Exhibition Gallery, is well designed and allows visitors to wander without overcrowding. Colourful red and yellow walls, with some stylised Chinese decorations, help create a more immersive and visually pleasant experience for visitors. An introductory video at the beginning of the exhibition created a welcoming space to introduce those without much knowledge to the period and its importance in Chinese history. The exhibition itself is a great success at making people rethink the artistry and complexity of the Ming dynasty. Most people in the Western world associate Ming with beautiful ceramics, but while there are some stunning examples on display, they do not dominate. Objects such as paintings, ceremonial swords, miniature shrines and lacquerware show an empire of remarkable creativity.

Overall, Ming: 50 Years That Changed China is an interesting case study for ITP participants. It tackles many questions about interpretation, design, and curation which you may want to consider for your own exhibitions in future: how to condense and ‘simplify’ a broad and complex topic, how to introduce that topic to your audience, how to choose objects to tell a particular story, how to interpret a space to reflect your exhibition’s theme, and finally, how to make your exhibition distinct.

Presentation sword (jian) and scabbard © Royal Armouries

One thought on “Staff Breakfast – ‘Ming: 50 Years That Changed China’

  1. I agree the exhibition serves as a brilliant introduction to Chinese history for those not already familiar with it, hosts a great array of objects (not just Ming porcelain) and it does a great job with the exhibition space. My only problem with it was the slightly misleading title, which suggests that China was markedly different in 1450 to how it was in 1400. For me, the exhibition seemed to show that, on the contrary, the finest examples of Ming art emphasise tradition and continuity.

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