The British Museum

The British Museum Collaboration with China: Research and Exhibitions

Early Ming China's multiple courts were internationally engaged long before the arrival of Europeans who traded directly with China in the 1500s, Ming: 50 years that changed China, co-curated by Jessica Harrison-Hall of the BM and Craig Clunas of the University of Oxford explores multiple courts in the early Ming and their international connections. Through 280 objects and paintings, the show examines the contexts for the Forbidden City and explores the myths and realities of Chinese national hero Zheng He, the eunuch who led armadas across the Indian Ocean to Africa before Columbus was born.

Curating the exhibition involved working with 30 lenders (museums, libraries and private collections). This paper focuses on the relationships with Chinese Museums particularly curators, directors and people responsible for cultural heritage in regional China. Organisations included Art Exhibitions China, the State Administration for Cultural Heritage, the Ministry of Culture of China, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This collaboration required close engagement with senior high officials in China as well as with the British Council, British Embassy in Beijing and the Chinese Embassy in London all of which played important roles.

Cultural diplomacy, big business and the growing emphasis on "soft" power generates interest in the Ming exhibition among UK politicians. Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, opened the exhibition on 16 September 2014 and said; "This event is a good example of a coalition between the BM and its exhibition sponsor, BP," -as reported in the London Evening Standard. George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, mentioned the exhibition in a parliamentary speech on 12 September 2014. The Hon Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy on 23 September 2014 described it as "a stunning exhibition". Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, cited the Ming exhibition as a major autumn blockbuster and one which brought tourists to London, delivering an important income stream. Within China, the Ming show has also been used as a vehicle for cultural diplomacy. Li Keqiang (now Premier of the People's Republic of China and party secretary of the State Council) visited the BM in 2010 and discussed some of the BM's Ming material, which is included in the exhibition. In 2014, his wife, Cheng Hong examined paintings and objects being conserved for the show.

As well as these successes my paper will address some of the difficulties involved in working with China on a project of this scale. There are different approaches to academic research in China and elsewhere. The sheer size of China and the time to travel and build relationships directly with core museums, libraries and individual lenders, whilst moving forward other parts of the project, was a real challenge. Perhaps digital technology will help as more Chinese museums start to put their collections on line. Balancing the quid pro quo is a challenge. Can the BM lend treasures to Chinese museums on a similar scale? Chinese museums have much larger staffs than the BM. This impacts the hospitality and care we can provide. The 7 hour time difference also impacts on communications. Linguistic challenges are ever present. Legal requirements are different in the two countries affecting contract negotiations. Chinese timescales are much shorter than English timescales for planning events and exhibitions. In addition to the Chinese relationships, we are balancing the needs of sponsors, lenders, politicians, art organisations, journalists and exhibition teams. Despite working in systems that are organised and function quite differently, the end result of the collaboration between China and the BM that produced the exhibition is one that has shown positive public, as well as scholarly benefit.