A Fine Art Lesson
Students have curated an exhibition of rare books in a first-time collaboration between the Faculty of Arts, the University Museum and the HKU libraries.
European depictions of China in 18th and 19th century books may seem an esoteric source of real-life experiences, but for eight Fine Arts students they represented an uncommon opportunity to gain new skills and insights.
The students used illustrations from the books as the basis for an exhibition they curated at the University Museum over the winter, where they did everything from selecting the featured prints, deciding the order they would appear in and writing captions and entries for a bilingual catalogue, to helping to place the books in cases and adjusting the lighting.
“This was not just about our studies but about having to learn to interact with people who don’t know anything about art. From this, we learned what the public would want to know,” Rachel Suen Ka-lee said.
The exhibition was a collaboration arranged by Dr Gregory Thomas of the School of Humanities (Fine Arts) with Iris Chan and Edith Chan in the library’s Special Collections department and Yeung Chun-tong, the Director of the University Museum and Art Gallery.
“Art history has always been based on a heavy dose of hands-on experience and engagement with real objects,” Dr Thomas said. “One thing we don’t have much of in Hong Kong that improves the study of art history is examples of western art. But we do have a very rich collection of antique books in the library.
“The goal was to give the students an opportunity to handle actual works of art and gain experience in curatorial work and research and writing. The work for this assignment would be typical in the museum world.”
The students were trained how to handle the books, including washing their hands before class, never opening the books flat, never touching the illustrations with bare hands because of sweat and grease, using only pencils around the books and ensuring the humidity and lighting were set at the right levels.
More importantly, they also got a deeper understanding of historical European depictions of China as a place of strange landscapes and costumes, and sometimes barbaric practices.
Winnie Tsang Hoi-yan said: “I worked with an illustration about punishment [in which a man is having his foot cut off]. I already knew about the 10 worst punishments of the Qing dynasty, but I never knew they were portrayed as something as childish as in that book.
“The book was about the criminal justice system in China but there were only pictures, nothing else. It showed China as more violent than just, and tried to sensationalize the whole thing. China comes across as inferior and barbaric, and its justice system is also presented like a kind of entertainment. At first I was amazed by this but as I read more, I felt that China was being used as an object for others to impose their power on.”
Her colleague, Nicole Fung Nok-kan, said the illustrations they worked with also made her more aware of stereotyping. “It has made me think of how I perceive other cultures. When I see an image, I won’t trust it 100 per cent. I will think about what underlies it.”
Dr Thomas said this was an unusual exercise given the difficulty in identifying artwork that students could handle and of tying in with the museum’s schedule. But he hoped there could be more curating opportunities in future with the advent of the new four-year curriculum and new exhibition space at the Centennial Campus.