British Council Shanghai
With the financial backing of the UK-China Humanities Alliance Visiting Fellowship I visited Fudan University, Shanghai for two weeks (January 5 to 19). At Fudan University I worked closely with Professor Liu ZhaoHui, from the Department of Cultural Heritage and Museology.
Together we discussed my PhD research, a historical study of the once famous, now forgotten Chinese art collector John Hilditch (1872-1930). I presented my PhD research to Professor Liu, who had also invited a PhD student to the meetings, and together we discussed the ancient Chinese material culture John Hilditch had collected. Moreover, Professor Liu introduced me to his former student, Chen Jie, who now works as a researcher at Shanghai Museum, in the ceramics department.
Showing Professor Lui and Chen Jie photographs of the collection, we discussed the authenticity of the objects, as well as the false attributions Hilditch attached to them. As a historian, but using material culture in my research, the insights of both Professor Liu and Chen have been crucial in developing my understanding of the collection. From the discussions we were able to use the objects to answer questions that have long troubled my own investigations. For example, ascertaining the ‘ordinariness’ of many of the objects has opened up new lines of thinking into how Hilditch, a man of the lower middle-class status, could have amassed a collection of over two thousand objects. The UK-China Humanities Alliance Visiting Fellowship also provided me with the opportunity to explore Shanghai to further my investigation into the Hilditch Collection. I was fortunate enough to be accompanied around Shanghai Museum by Chen Jie, where we compared Hilditch’s items to those at the prestigious museum. Afterwards, in order to see objects that are closer to Hilditch’s with regards to authenticity and artistic quality I visited two of Shanghai’s antique markets. Situating the collection between the poles ‘museum quality’ and ‘antique market’, alongside the discussions with Liu and Chen, has meant that the visiting fellowship was pivotal in furthering my understanding of Chinese material culture, and thus significantly impacting my PhD research.
In the 1920s, the authenticity of the Hilditch Collection had been widely debated, but since then there has been no ‘modern’ review of the whole collection. Today, serendipitously, a small portion of the former collection is now situated in two museums in England. The portion at Bagshaw Museum, Yorkshire has received little to no scholarly attention. As a smaller, provincial museum, funding issues restrict the extent to which the collection can be researched. Through the UK-China Humanities Alliance Visiting Fellowship I was able to gain a greater insight into the material held at Bagshaw, both to update their records of the collection, and help form future exhibitions. Therefore the visiting fellowship also impacted the museum, in addition to my own research. Currently we are planning a loan exhibition, and the discussions in Shanghai have played a significant role in forming the content of the display. An exhibition will allow my research to reach a wider audience, as I hope to accompany the display with lectures and community events.
Finally, the UK-China Humanities Alliance Visiting Fellowship opened up the possibility to conduct preliminary research into the international art market in China during the 1920s, ‘30s and 40s, with a particular focus on fakes. Again, with the assistance of Professor Liu I visited archives and libraries finding ample sources for a future research project.
Lewis Ryder, January 2019