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Chinese Object Study Workshop co-leader Vimalin Rujivacharakul (right), associate professor of art history, and Arizona State University doctoral student Carolyn Greene examine a piece of porcelain at Winterthur Museum.
One afternoon in early June in a lab at Winterthur Museum, 10 doctoral students from across the
U.S. and Europe gathered around a table holding a 17th century ceramic
bowl painted with Chinese designs.
Vimalin Rujivacharakul, associate professor of art history at the
University of Delaware, asked the group to spend a few minutes observing
and come up with one-word descriptions of the bowl, which was clearly
the worse for wear.
Cracked, matte, unglazed, eroded, some students said.
Rujivacharakul then guided them in considering what those descriptions
meant for the condition and history of the bowl: Had it always been
unglazed, or did was its glaze removed? What kind of activity could have
caused that removal?
The students examined it more closely through a microscope and heard
some more about what Winterthur conservators had discovered through
scientific testing. Their conclusion was that the bowl had been
submerged in seawater for some time after a shipwreck.
When we first look at an object, we think about what we are seeing,
Rujivacharakul said. Then we think: What questions can we ask based on
what we see?
The importance for art historians to experience that kind of
up-close, detailed study of objects is the reason the 10 students were
at Winterthur, participating in a one-week session of the Chinese Object
Study Workshop series. The prestigious program, launched in 2013 by the
Smithsonians Freer|Sackler galleries of Asian art and generously
funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is hosted at top institutions
around the United States each summer.
The program began because art history graduate programs must spend so
much classroom time covering the breadth of the field that students
often have little direct work with objects themselves, said Nancy
Micklewright, head of public and scholarly engagement for the
Freer|Sackler. Viewing art from PowerPoint slides is useful, she said,
but more is needed.
You start learning about objects from observation, and you cant get
that from a photograph, Micklewright said. You have to sit with the
object, and this [workshop series] gives them time to have a week of
really intensive looking.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Workshop leaders Robert Mintz (left) of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and UD's Vimalin Rujivacharakul (far right) work with doctoral students as they study objects from China that are part of Winterthur's collection.
Winterthur, with its world-class conservation labs and its
partnerships with UD in art conservation and material culture studies,
was a great choice to host one of this years workshops, she said. The
group was able to see how scientific instruments are used to analyze
the chemical composition of materials such as enamels and help re-create
an objects history.
The opportunity for the students to see conservation techniques is a
special benefit, Micklewright said. And the close collaboration
between the University and Winterthur is another huge bonus.
This session of the workshop series focused on Chinese export objects made between the late 17th and early 20th centuries.
The subject of Chinese objects is important, especially considering
Chinas enormous production of material objects in its over 5,000 years
of history, Rujivacharakul said. But, she said, objects from China have
been understudied and often excluded from the mainstream history of
Chinese art, as they are typically considered more as commodities or
But those Chinese export objects were also prized by collectors
around the world, and they make up the majority of objects collected
from China until the beginning of the 20th century.
Leading the workshop with Rujivacharakul was Robert Mintz, deputy
director of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. They were joined by
members of Winterthurs staff: Catharine Dann Roeber, Catherine Matsen,
Gregory J. Landrey, Leslie Grigsby, Josh Lane and Linda Eaton, together
with Ron Fuchs II from Washington and Lee University, a 1996 alumnus of
UDs graduate Winterthur Program in American Material Culture.
Students, who competed for selection to participate in the workshop,
came from the universities of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Chicago,
California at Berkeley, Manchester and Amsterdam and from Princeton and
Arizona State universities.
The Freer|Sackler, which
administer the Chinese Object Study Workshop series, are the Smithsonian
Institutions museums of Asian art, with two gallery buildings
physically connected by an underground passage.
Since the series began in 2013, workshops have been held at some of
the top U.S. museums that are known for their Asian art collections. The
Freer|Sackler and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have each hosted two
workshops, and the second session this year will be held in August at
the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
The workshop series is funded by a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, whose mission is to strengthen and promote the humanities and the arts.
Winterthur Museum, known as the
premier museum of American decorative arts, also has significant
collections of Chinese export objects. The object study workshop,
Rujivacharakul said, also gave participants the opportunity to broaden
their knowledge of Winterthur.
Article by Ann Manser; photos by Evan Krape