This is a collaborative project with Dr. Francesca Dal Lago (Research School of Asian, African and Amerindian Studies, Leiden University) that focuses on the practices of displaying Chinese art and material culture both historically and in the contemporary period to provide a theoretical and methodological framework for the study of cross-cultural patterns of communication between the Chinese and Euro-American cultural systems. One of the most frequently adopted forms of cultural presentation in the Western world is the exhibition or the museum display, a genre loaded with complex meanings, related to the history of its emergence and formation as a specific cultural activity. While the public display of a collection of objects in a museum is a fundamentally Western historical practice, the ideology of the museum has been exported throughout the globe and adopted with greater or lesser success in different cultural contexts. A particular concern in the field of museum studies has been the process through which objects produced outside the Western system are categorized and displayed in Europe and North America. Criticism of such practices focuses on the way in which the collection, display and interpretation of these objects in museums and galleries continues to be informed by colonial models in a post-colonial period. The period covered in this project spans from late Imperial China to the contemporary, and the contributors focus on specific cases of the presentation of Chinese material culture to both a Chinese and a non-Chinese public.

What happens then when a form of intellectual inquiry originating within one cultural system is used to define and investigate objects produced with particular functions and under specific modes of production in another culture? What are the outcomes and the problems of such an approach? To answer such questions, a diverse group of art historians, anthropologists, artists, curators and critics have contributed papers that discuss issues concerning the display and reception of Chinese cultural artifacts inside and outside the space of Chinese territory and the misrepresentations often generated through this process. We will draw particular comparisons between global practices and the domestic interpretations made of indigenous forms of display presented to the Chinese public. Our intellectual goal is to create a forum for dialogue and collaboration that can develop new theoretical and methodological frameworks for research on the relationship between the Chinese and the Euro-American systems of display. Our applied goal, based upon the inclusion of both scholars and practitioners, is to identify patterns of intervention that could help to modify the way in which contemporary representations and interpretations of ‘China' are conceptualized through exhibition and display.

The symposium on which this project is based was sponsored in part by the IIAS and was held in Leiden in December of 2007.