By Moira Sun, Visitor Host – Museums Wellington
Being Chinese and living in New Zealand for over a decade, it’s always fascinating for me to visit museums and galleries back home in China. With an art and museum background, I enjoy finding differences and similarities between museums and galleries in both countries. This truly has become a unique experience for me.
This year I went back to Guanfu museum in Beijing, the first private museum in China, to have another visit to one of my favourite galleries – the Furniture Hall. Often, an interactive and inspiring exhibition with respectful collections can create a memorable experience that adds value to my visit. Yet, I must admit, having opportunities for ‘looking closely’ is more than enough for me when it comes to very treasured collections.
This is what the Furniture Hall allows audiences to do – visually observe the collection as closely as possible. I walked through all six mini exhibition halls and a special Chinese ancient study room to see over 500 pieces of furniture. Many of them were at a touchable distance with “Please do not touch” signs sitting on top of them instead of hiding behind glass cabinets or behind distanced barriers.
To me, this is a very challenging and fearless undertaking. Most museums would prefer to keep certain distances between their valued objects and audiences but the Furniture Hall allows for maximum access and exploration of the collections for the public. Besides this, as an audience member I was given the impression of being trusted by the Museum. Overall, it was a thrilling experience to be able to pay close attention to some of the distinct features, i.e. the plain but elegant ornamentation, or the rich decorations and engraved designs on the furniture from the Ming (1368–1644) or Qing (1644–1912) Dynasties.
As much as I loved to experience such a visual ‘intimate encounter’ with the objects, I also noticed the difficulties. It was particularly difficult to control some visitors who unintentionally touched the objects on a busy day when the crowds were overwhelming. There were not enough staff to keep an eye on the audiences, and it became fairly problematic when some people could not resist touching the ‘unprotected’ furniture. Having authentic treasures ‘out there’ for the public is a true temptation; especially when they are so valued and well preserved. However, oils and dirt from our hands indeed will gradually cause staining and damage to these artefacts (Haines, 2016).
Does this mean Guanfu Museum should forbid this exceptional ‘visual engagement’ access? No. It’s more important to educate audiences with a growing awareness of some of the rules applied to museums and galleries. Furthermore, it is important to find appropriate activities that encourage the audience to interact with the objects. Although museums and galleries’ standards are varied, it is always inspirational to discover how these institutions attempt to offer diverse hands-on activities, not only to raise awareness of whether an object could or could not be touched and the reasons behind it, but also to stimulate people’s creativity and willingness to engage.
Naturally I think of some exhibitions at Wellington Museum. For example, China Town – Haining Street’s herbal display cabinet in the Attic, which allows people to open the drawers and smell the Chinese herbs that were used to make soup or congee. Another great example is Te Whanganui a Tara, a poupou & tukutuku panels carved by the late Erenora Puketapu-Hetet and Rangi Hetet (Te Ati Awa) of Waiwhetu Marae, which can be touched by visitors and was made especially for Wellington Museum. According to Museums Wellington Registrar Taila Roth, ‘blessings’ have been “deeply imbued with Wairau (Spirit), Mauri (Life Force), and Mana (Prestige/Strength) into these carvings and weavings during Te Whanganui a Tara (creation and life) in the Museum” (T. Roth, personal communication, May 04, 2017). They were ‘brought to life’ by Erenora and Rangi who are considered as Tohunga Whakairo and Tohunga Raranga (master carver and weaver).
Te Whanganui a Tara acknowledges the bond between the taonga (treasure), the museum, the artists, and visitors by sharing some of the stories of the ancestors and the region; it reveals our identities (who we are and what we do) and by touching and talking to it “we may share a part of his Wairua, Mauri and Mana”. This is a “mutually beneficial relationship”, where the spiritual connection is continually passing to living people, and “we too leave echoes of ourselves on this taonga”. That is, “we mutually transfer what makes us special to it adding to its life stories”. All these characteristics make Te Whanganui a Tara one of the most significant taonga at the Museum. (T. Roth, personal communication, May 04, 2017)
Being able to form a physical connection between the museum objects and the visitors gets people emotionally and spiritually attached to the artefacts and the stories behind them. Above all, creating a multisensory experience for museum visitors is thought to enhance audience engagement to a new level (Ucar, 2015). These interactive approaches can also strengthen respect for the identity, culture and ownership etc that shaped the objects. As a museum insider, I love the idea of ‘what can we do better to benefit our communities’. On the other hand, when wearing a hat as a museum goer – an outsider – there is always one question in my mind – ‘what more can I offer back if I really enjoy my experience?’ Maybe visitors can start to understand, respect and cooperate more when certain standards and rules are required by the museum or gallery, apart from providing financial support.
And lastly, it might be worthwhile sharing what the tour guide said regarding ‘respect’ at Guanfu Museum: ‘People who cannot resist touching the objects often do not mean to harm them, but because they don’t understand how to show respect – not only respect from historical perspectives, but also respect for the story and the significant meanings behind these works. This piece of furniture may have served many generations, been through and survived many historical events, was eventually discovered by us and collected by our museum. The object itself has already become a very knowledgeable creature who is silently telling us what it experienced in all those years. If you know how to respect these objects, then you will always remember not to touch them.’
I love how different cultures share some of the fundamental ideologies of how we see and treat our collections as being worthy of respect, and how exhibitions nowadays intertwine with modern ideas, concepts and applications to form connections with our past, present and the future.
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