Communicating Chinese ceramics : a study of material culture theory in selected museums in Britain
2014-12-15T10:45:38Z (GMT) by
Many museums in the United Kingdom house fabulous collections of Chinese ceramics. These objects demonstrate, on the one hand, how craftsmen, connoisseurs and literati users made tactile contact with the object in the cultural context of traditional China and, on the other hand, reveal the interesting processes by which they were collected, adopted into museum culture and have created new meanings for British museum visitors. However, I argue that these objects are generally silent, because museum interpretation tends to reduce their materiality to visual narration, confining their interactions with visitors to the detached and static. This research aims to transform and animate object-human relationship through the development of an interpretive model highlighting sensory experiences, aesthetic sensibilities and reflective understanding. The proposed model outlines three interpretive principles - emphatic responses, metaphorical associations and multi-sensory designs - that define the object as an active enterprise embodying sensuous and emotive experiences of the past. In addition, it advocates a tactile mode of looking that empowers objects to speak of human experiences through their perceptual qualities while encouraging visitors to undergo self-discovery journeys in connection with the work. To ground my theory within a practical museum context, I examined visitors' interpretive strategies and conducted a series of interpretive experiments, involving Chinese material culture, at the Bristol City Museum (BCM) and the Museum of East Asian Art at Bath (MEAA). Informed by visitors' responses and my theoretical construction, these experiments aimed to develop a dynamic mode of object-human communication in exhibitions and to expand the scope of museum experiences. In relation to professional museum concerns with diversity and accessibility, it is contended that a sensuous theory of material culture will explore diverse voices embodied by the objects and contribute to the development of a truly communicative and inclusive culture in museums.