Real and Rare Ming Treasures at The British Museum's Illuminating Exhibition

A remarkable exhibition at the British Museum explored the significant social and cultural changes in China that established Beijing as a capital city and the building of the Forbidden City. “Ming: 50 Years that changed China” supported by BP, is an excellent example of collaboration between two Research Organisations and an international company. The exhibition was seen by over 140,000 visitors, with an additional 100,000 visiting the Spotlight tour “Made in China” that showcased the British Museum’s largest Ming vase at The Willis Museum in Hampshire, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, the Weston Park Museum in Sheffield and the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. These striking displays attracted huge amounts of press and social media coverage.

One of a pair of gold pillow ends, decorated with two dragons. Beijing or Nanjing, China, Ming dynasty, Xuande period, 1426–1435.Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum

Many of the exhibition’s treasures originated from the imperial and princely courts, for which AHRC funding has facilitated international exchange and partnership for research with 21 international contributors, including 10 Chinese institutions, increasing international connections between the organisations.

A large number of these objects have only very recently been discovered and have never before been seen outside China. The variety of objects on display did not only cover the material riches but it also gave insight to court life, the military, culture, diplomacy, trade and beliefs of the time.

The research led by two Ming specialists, Jessica Harrison-Hall (British Museum) and Professor Craig Clunas (Oxford University), shaped a stunning collection bringing to light various extraordinary and extremely rare loaned objects. The international Ming conference held in October 2014 brought together 29 academics from across the globe examining aspects of Ming culture as diverse as music and firearms. This three day event was attended by an audience of 350 people each day and was also streamed live.

The project aimed to provide a new perspective on a period of crucial importance to China and the wider world through the exhibition and three books: Ming: 50 years that changed China ( 2014); Ming: People Art and Places ( 2014) and Ming China: Courts and Contacts 1400-1450 (forthcoming 2016). This led to a reinterpretation of many of the objects held internationally from this era, which will be the foundation for future research.

The early Ming period is popularly regarded as a golden age of international engagement and is a model for modern China. It is a defining point in present-day Chinese perceptions of their own history and international relationships. The use of multiple courts instead of one single, imperial court was an important change. They enjoyed an age of unparalleled global contacts from Kyoto to Mogadishu, through trade and diplomacy evidenced through gifts of gold, silver, paintings, porcelains, weapons, costume and furniture. These objects influenced Chinese artists, and they created some of the most beautifully intricate craft and artwork ever made, telling the story of how China transformed into an influential global superpower.

For more information on the project visit: The British Museum - 50 Years that changed China

Gateway to Research Project Links: Ming: Courts and Contacts 1400-1450