International Ambitions

Earlier this year we were awarded a grant by the Working Internationally Regional Project (WIRP). The grant enables non-national museums to undertake international visits to develop projects and partnerships. In this post our Curator, Stephanie Boydell,  shares her recent experience of visiting China to develop a touring exhibition on British book illustration.

In March I travelled to Beijing, China with Dr Tongyu Zhou, a Research Associate at MIRIAD (Manchester Institute for Research in Art and Design). We were meeting members of the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), the leading Arts university in the country, to develop a proposed touring exhibition of material from Special Collections. The proposed exhibition will explore British Book Design and Illustration from the 1890s to the 1950s, an area in which our collections are notably strong. Dr Zhou has recognized that there is a keen audience for this work in China, reflecting a strong interest in British design. This parallels the popular, traditional crafts of Chinese book production and printmaking which are still taught at CAFA alongside Western and contemporary printmaking. We thought it was particularly appropriate that we partner with CAFA as, like them, we are a university museum with our foundations in the Manchester School of Art, and we retain relationships with the school and its teaching and research profile.

Professor Wu Jiang, Stephanie Boydell and Dr Tongyu Zhou standing outside the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing

Professor Wu Jiang, Stephanie Boydell and Dr Tongyu Zhou at CAFA

We arrived in Beijing late in the afternoon, exhausted by the 13 hour flight. The following morning we were picked up by our main partner, Associate Professor Wu Jiang who is the Head of the Illustration Department at CAFA. Professor Wu is keen to collaborate on international projects and he had arranged for us to meet Mr Yan Shanchun, a leading scholar and Vice President of Shenzen Fine Art Institute, and one of our potential partners. We met at the Shishuhuazazhi Publishing House, home of the quarterly journal “Poetry, Calligraphy and Painting”, a renowned academic publication.

Exhibition in the Central Academy of Fine Arts Gallery, Beijing

Exhibition in the CAFA gallery

Following this came what was probably one of the highlights of my visit: a tour of CAFA’s print and illustration departments and the CAFA gallery. The academy is extremely well-resourced and I was delighted to see the extensive facilities. I was particularly impressed by the fact that the latest in digital print technology sat alongside the established classical Chinese arts of calligraphy, printing and painting.

Traditional print studio at the Central Academy for Fine Arts in Beijing

Traditional print studio at CAFA

The traditional print studio, with its carved wooden partitions and a large porcelain bowl with goldfish, was an amazing space and must be wonderful to work in. The CAFA museum is spacious and modern, designed by the Japanese architect Arata  Isozaki. The comparison to MMU Special Collections was evident, in that their exhibitions and collections were focussed on the history of the school and its famous alumni, displaying archive and artwork together. Like us, they also collect material that is, and has been, used for teaching and research over many years. One other highlight was an invitation to attend the opening ceremony of the exhibition Once and Forever, a retrospective for the celebrated artist and illustrator Sun Zixi at the Chinese National Gallery of Art. Sun Zixi, now 75, was in attendance and commanded a great deal of respect and over an hour of speeches.

All in all it was a wonderful and eye-opening experience. Our hosts were extremely generous and welcoming. I did find it difficult not speaking the language and relying on Tongyu to translate conversations and to negotiate the very different ways in which exhibitions are proposed in China, in particular navigating the formalities of approaching people in the correct order and getting their tacit approval before being able to progress further. The trip was a success and we have established good relationships with our potential partners.

The WIRP is run by ICOM UK and funded by the Arts Council England Museum Resilience Fund. ICOM UK is the national branch of ICOM (the International Council of Museums) which is an international organisation of museums and museum professionals committed to the conservation of the world’s natural and cultural heritage. It is a non-governmental organisation but maintains formal relations with UNESCO and acts as advisor to the UN.

The original version of this post was written for the Working Internationally Regional Project (WIRP) blog on the ICOM UK website


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