Connected \\ October 17, 2018

Cross-Cultural Collaboration

Empress Dowager Chongqing just may have been the most doted-upon mother in history. No matter how busy her son got as ruler of a vast domain, the Qianlong emperor made a point to begin each day with a visit to his beloved mother. When official duties kept him away, he presented her with a walking stick to metaphorically accompany her in his absence.

The emperor, who ruled China for nearly 60 years, from 1736 to 1795, staged grand celebrations to mark his mother’s 60th, 70th and 80th birthdays. He ordered court painters to capture her likeness, built a grand imperial garden in her honor and even penned poems dedicated to her. And when Chongqing died at the age of 86, he commissioned a 237-pound gold shrine encrusted with precious gemstones to hold a few locks of her hair, which was believed to ensure her rebirth.

And you thought a Hallmark card and breakfast-in-bed on Mother’s Day was special.

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Daisy Yiyou Wang, co-curator of Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, at the Palace Museum last fall. Photo by Bob Packert/PEM.

I now have a deep appreciation for how much this emperor invested into loving and caring for his mother,” says Daisy Yiyou Wang, co-curator of Empresses of China’s Forbidden City. “On a personal level, I feel this exhibition helps me better appreciate my own parents in China. I can’t visit them every day, but at least I can greet them in a text once a day. It’s hard, but I think everyone should try it too.

While the exhibition presents stories about a world so different from our own, Empresses of China’s Forbidden City offers moments of relevancy to lives lived today. A three-way collaboration between PEM, the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Freer|Sackler) in Washington, D.C., and the Palace Museum in Beijing, the exhibition offers an unprecedented account of the role of empresses in China’s last dynasty — the Qing, from 1644 to 1912.

Painstaking records were kept about the emperors — from what they ate for dinner to what they wore on any given day — but the texture of the lives of the women who occupied the Forbidden City remained largely undocumented and under-studied. For four years, Wang, PEM’s Robert N. Shapiro Curator of Chinese and East Asian Art, and Jan Stuart, the Melvin R. Seiden Curator of Chinese Art at the Freer|Sackler, dug deep into the Palace Museum’s collection to glean new insights about their lives.

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Associate Registrar for Exhibitions Suzanne Inge and Palace Museum Curator of Textile and exhibition courier Zhang Xin collaborate in advance of the exhibition. Photo by Francesca Williams/PEM staff.

While the curators undertook meticulous research to support the show’s premise, Wang notes that the exhibition is only possible because of the work of many devoted museum professionals, in the United States and in China, who were committed to executing an international project of this ambition and scale.

The exhibition team in the U.S. and China encountered 12-hour time differences, language and cultural barriers, extensive permit requirements, lengthy negotiations surrounding object selection, and the logistics of shipping and then installing some 250 works of art at PEM in a compelling, safe and culturally sensitive manner on a tight deadline. Eleven PEM staff members from a variety of departments traveled to the Palace Museum to help plan the exhibition.

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PEM Preparator Dave O’Ryan takes in the views of the Forbidden City. Photo by Francesca Williams/PEM staff.

“I have so much respect for all of my colleagues who worked on this project,” says Wang. “What we did was so big and so complex, we really needed to have all hands on deck.”

Empresses is not the first collaboration between PEM and the Palace Museum, and the established relationship was crucial to the success of the show, says Priscilla Danforth, PEM’s Director of Exhibition Planning. “There was a great deal of trust between the two museums because of The Emperor’s Private Paradise (2010) exhibition and our site visits to the Palace Museum. There were extensive negotiations necessary to execute this project and I was continuously impressed by the high level of collegiality and commitment demonstrated by all the individuals involved.”

It was critical that the Freer|Sackler embraced the exhibition concept and worked in close partnership with PEM from the beginning. Without the ability to share expertise, resources and costs, Danforth says, mounting an exhibition of this magnitude would not have been possible.

“The bar was set very high. Daisy and Jan were both intensely passionate about this project and it took unrivaled energy to get us where we are today,” says Danforth. “It’s very endearing to see how the two of them bonded. It’s been an incredible journey for all of us.”

Echoing the sentiments of many involved, PEM Registrar Francesca Williams said she has never worked on an exhibition that presented quite so many complexities. She spent one week in China last November and three weeks this past July to help oversee the documentation and shipment of some 250 objects. Three PEM staff members flew on three separate planes to accompany the work to the U.S.


Francesca Williams, Registrar for Exhibitions, Dave Seibert, Director of Exhibition Design, Suzanne Inge, Associate Registrar for Exhibitions, and Jon Litwin, PEM's contracted mount maker, at the Great Wall of China. Photo by Francesca Williams/PEM.

Nearly 50 Palace Museum objects required special permits because they contain protected materials (such as coral, ivory, peafowl feathers) that are regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

“This was the most permits PEM has ever sought in one shipment. It was a historic, once-in-a-registrar’s-career type of challenge,” says Williams. “I am really proud of what my team accomplished. It’s not every day that you work with China on exhibitions, and I feel good about the relationships that we built.”

PEM’s staff worked closely with the Palace Museum, U.S. and Chinese shipping agents, and government officials to ensure that each object was safely and legally transported. The process began by researching the scientific names (genus and species) of all the plant and animal materials included in the objects. Both the age of the objects (that they are more than 100 years old), and their strong provenance (that they have been in the Palace Museum collection for many years) helped meet the criteria to secure the permits.

For her part, Wang said she is beyond grateful that the Palace Museum agreed to enthusiastically let their treasures travel to PEM, many on loan for the first time outside of China, to deepen understanding of the country’s art, history and its people.

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PEM Associate Registrar for Exhibitions Suzanne Inge found time for a visit to the Ming tombs near Beijing. Photo by Francesca Wiliams/PEM.

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Stupa containing Empress Dowager Chongqing’s hair and Amitayus Buddha, Qianlong period, 1777, Imperial Workshop, Beijing. Gold and silver alloy with coral, turquoise, lapis lazuli, semiprecious stones, and glass; pedestal: zitan wood, Palace Museum, Gu11866. © The Palace Museum.

This is a once-in-a-curator’s-career type of exhibition. I feel it is our responsibility, particularly now, to do even more to promote cultural exchanges. We, in the cultural fields, recognize we need to be very active connecting people,” says Wang. “Exhibitions like this broaden our horizons as we try to live in someone else’s shoes who has a totally different life than our own. I think it’s magical what happens.
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