MING DAZZLES IN BARCELONA

Discover Ming: the Golden Empire in this newly commissioned film which provides an exclusive behind the scenes look at the exhibition presented in Barcelona.

INTERVIEW

A Tale of Two Cities in Ten Minutes: In Discussion with Tim Pethick, Director of Nomad Exhibitions

A Tale of Two Cities is an exhibition concept developed by Nomad Exhibitions and Historic Environment Scotland in collaboration with host museums around the world. The exhibition was launched at Nanjing Museum, China in 2013 and was recently presented at Edinburgh Castle in Scotland. A new presentation which explores Edinburgh and Lisbon will be displayed at the Museum of Lisbon, Portugal from June 2016. Tim Pethick, who oversaw the project as Director of Nomad Exhibitions, introduces the exhibition and gives us a glimpse behind the scenes.

EM: What is A Tale of Two Cities? 

TP: A Tale of Two Cities is a collaborative curatorial exhibition project which allows two global urban locations and two collections to be presented to local audiences from a fresh perspective.

I think that architectural and city museums can have quite a challenging time appealing to repeat and local audiences, as residents of cities often feel that they already know all there is about their home city. The iconic treasures of a city become familiar over time. People perhaps don’t have that expectation that they can learn something new. In fact, city archives are extraordinary resources with huge amounts of material which the public are not always aware of. A Tale of Two Cities addresses this issue by asking: what techniques can local museums employ to inspire local people to learn more about their city? The exhibition introduces a second city, Edinburgh, to the story, as a point of comparison. Through interest in a new and unfamiliar city, visitors will rediscover and newly discover material relating to their own city. So I suppose there is a paradox lying at the heart of the exhibition concept - it can take material from another city to shed light on our own cities, gaining understanding of the familiar by exploring the unknown.

It is not essential that the cities chosen for the exhibition share precise characteristics or phases of development with Edinburgh. The exhibition is preoccupied with presenting differences as much as it is with presenting similarities. We have found that sometimes there can even be more to learn from contrasting and comparing than from common ground!

Another key aspect of A Tale of Two Cities is the spirit of partnership. The project is always founded on an equal curatorial partnership. I think that the equal contribution is really quite rare in co-curated exhibition development. The result has been the creation of totally unique narratives and the development of valuable relationships, which endure long after the exhibitions conclude.

EM: Why is Edinburgh such an effective city for comparison?

TP: Edinburgh is extremely effective in the context of comparison: it is a significant European capital and it is compact in scale, with around half a million occupants. Within this relatively small city we have very clearly defined areas of development which apply to specific periods in history. We have fewer vertical layers of history; in Edinburgh, as the need to expand has grown, the city has moved outwards - not upwards! Many cities, London or Paris for example, have redeveloped their medieval heart to create 18th–19th century classical cities from the centre outwards. But Edinburgh has created this new development outside of the old town; the old and new towns are separated. Beyond the old and new towns, there is a further modern city. This method of urban development has preserved the evidence of the city’s story. So Edinburgh is very black and white - the development process is plain to see. This makes it easy to compare architectural styles, both within and beyond the city. The archival records which illustrate this history of development are equally clearly-defined. This makes it more straight-forward to find evidence to support that wider narrative.

EM: You have highlighted what makes Edinburgh unique. Are there are also key features which Edinburgh shares with other cities?

TP: Absolutely. In the history context Edinburgh has suffered the same fate as many densely populated cities around the world: poor sanitation, disease, disasters such as major fires. This has all left an indelible mark on the city today, as is the case with so many cities.

I think that many European cities, Edinburgh included, experienced similar patterns in urban development. There is the typical medieval city which has evolved around religion and faith, the whole city radiating from churches and cathedrals, places of worship. In the 18th century there’s this widespread movement towards a more secular, civic, commercial tradition. You can see trade and commerce slowly taking over from the church with the emergence of secular-based urban centres, commercial squares with easily accessible and functional streets. You can see the physical landscape transforming in tandem with social and cultural change. This is a very interesting phenomenon. You see this change in a great many cities around the world.

Today, Edinburgh is a modern, forward-looking city, a major commercial, financial and administrative European centre - a capital city. It needs to continue to grow and adapt in changing times. There are two clear, competing areas of growth: one relating to its modernity, its growing commercial sector. The other, relating to cultural and heritage tourism, which is reinforced by the city’s World Heritage Site designation for its old and new towns, UNESCO City of Literature status and annual international arts festivals. So there is this tension between modernity and heritage. How do you promote both without having a negative impact on the other? This is a tension which exists in a lot of historical cities: how to expand without affecting a key part of the local economy, the charming character of the old city. Neither can exist without the other, yet they are not natural partners. This is a really interesting tension to study in a lot of cities. The exhibition helps to highlight this.

EM: How does the curatorial process work? 

TP: Initially, the UK-based curatorial team developed a narrative structure for the exhibition which would enable multiple partners to be introduced and new content to be prepared within a manageable framework. It was conceived with the idea of having more partners in the future. We knew that there needed to be a simple structure with clear themes and sub-themes - commerce, trade, religion and so on. The team selected themes which would translate across different styles of urban development and different cultures. It isn’t developed with any specific type of city or development in mind. Instead, the themes relate to periods in time - ‘the birth of the city’ for example. They do not presume a specific architectural period or style; they are generic. This framework forms the basis of the co-curation.

Once the Edinburgh material is prepared, we provide content guidelines to our partner - required text lengths, image requirements, content for interactives or digital installations. As the process develops, the Edinburgh material is adapted to highlight specific linkages between the two featured cities. A good example of this from the Lisbon exhibition is how we were able to show direct connections between 18th-century Edinburgh architects and the redevelopment of the Baixa area of Lisbon following the earthquake of 1755.

For each project we hold curatorial workshops in both cities in turn. These workshops involve presentations of archives, guided tours of the city to provide background and work sessions on content development for the exhibition. These exchanges are really valuable in allowing museum professionals and academics to make new connections and open new dialogues for future partnerships and collaborations.

EM: Can you tell me about the collection? 

TP: Historic Environment Scotland are the key Edinburgh content partners. Our team have had a long and successful record of working with Historic Environment Scotland on various projects, leading up to A Tale of Two Cities. As an organisation, Historic Environment Scotland is built up of several different collections: the properties collection, which is artefact-based, the National Collection of Aerial Photography and the manuscript archives. 
This collection is remarkably diverse with over 5 million drawings, photographs, negatives and manuscripts, 20 million aerial images from locations around the world and more than 300 properties in care. It is an excellent basis on which to illustrate the history of a city, using maps, drawings, written records, photography and objects.

Based on the core A Tale of Two Cities framework, we work with each partner to select a collection which tells a parallel story, which will complement and contrast with the Edinburgh collection effectively to bring out the story of the host city.

EM: What is your favourite object from the Edinburgh-Nanjing exhibition? 

TP: There is a series of original design proposals for the Mound area of Edinburgh, which was developed in the 18th century as a connection between the old and new towns. Among other things, it shows the plans for the National Gallery of Scotland. The proposals show these extraordinary Roman-style public baths, complete with plunge pools and steam baths beneath the art gallery. It was this peculiar concept of apparently linking the act of physically cleaning with cleaning the mind, philosophically and culturally, in the galleries which I think is really quirky. If it had been built, this feature of the building would perhaps not have stood the test of time. I think that it is interesting to consider not only the history of cities as they are and have been, but also as they might have been.

EM: What have you found most rewarding about the ATO2C project?  

TP: 1.2 million Chinese visitors came to see A Tale of Two Cities: Edinburgh and Nanjing. The exhibition was extended by two months due to popular demand. This was the first time that Historic Environment Scotland had presented any material in China. So these were great results. It was new territory for everyone involved in the project. This was very challenging and there were great risks involved, particularly for Nomad Exhibitions. So that success was extremely rewarding. This was reinforced further by the honour of receiving an Arts & Business international award in the UK in 2014.

EM: What’s next for ATO2C?

TP: A really rewarding outcome of the Nanjing exhibition was the confirmation that our city, Edinburgh, could be successfully used to draw out the interesting histories of other cities, that this model could be replicated in other locations. That opportunity is now being realised with our current partnership with the Museum of Lisbon, and future planned projects. I am looking forward to discovering the stories that A Tale of Two Cities will bring to light in the future, with the city of Lisbon and other major urban centres around the world.

Learn more with the exhibition press release and homepage

Object of the month - December

Silver tablet carrying an imperial edict in Phags-pa script, silver, Yuan dynasty (1260–1368), Inner Mongolia Museum

Silver tablet carrying an imperial edict in Phags-pa script, silver, Yuan dynasty (1260–1368), Inner Mongolia Museum

Imperial edict in Phags-pa script: a silver decree

This imperial edict of the Yuan dynasty is written on a silver tablet. The script translates as:

Under the power of the eternal heaven, the emperor’s name is sacred and cannot be violated, anyone who is not respectful will be sentenced to death.

Kublai Khan commissioned the Tibetan monk the Phags-pa Lama to create this script in 1267. Kublai sought to advance the unification of his vast empire by developing a script which could be used to transcribe multiple languages. He had intended his new script to become the official state script, however in reality it never replaced the use of Chinese characters and the first written language for Mongolian which had been commissioned by Genghis Khan.

Discover this silver tablet and learn more about Phags-pa and his script in our exhibition Genghis: Rise of the Mongol Khans which will be on display at the National Military Museum of the Netherlands in 2017.

Object of the month - November

Princess seal, copper, Mongol empire, Inner Mongolia Museum

Princess seal, copper, Mongol empire, Inner Mongolia Museum

Emblems of royalty: the seal of Genghis Khan’s third daughter

This seal displays the characters jiudie zhuan, meaning ‘the seal of regent princess to be governor of Hebei’. It belonged to the third daughter of Genghis Khan, who married into the Hangu Mongolian tribe. 

Learn more about the princess’s seal in our exhibition Genghis: Rise of the Mongol Khans which will be on display at the National Military Museum of the Netherlands in 2017.

THE HORSE IN KHITAN CULTURE: AN ETERNAL BOND

Our exhibition Tombs of the Liao Dynasty: Treasures from the Afterlife explores the vast empire founded in 907 by the Khitan, a semi-nomadic people of Inner Asia. The ancestral homeland of the Khitan was a fertile region of mountains and rolling grasslands which centred upon the Liao River. Herding cattle and horses was the central pillar of their pastoral, nomadic way of life and warfare, hunting and falconry were key facets of Khitan hunter-warrior culture.
 
Horses were integral to the survival of the Khitan. Surrounded by competing tribal nations, conflict was an ever-present possibility making military skill, accuracy and agility while on horseback a matter of life or death. As well as offering security and defence horses also enabled the tribe to cover great distances, held great economic value and provided crucial assistance in hunting. 
 
This important bond between man and horse did not come to an end when a person died. The Khitan worshipped ancestral spirits and believed that an afterlife upon the sacred Black Mountain followed death. In this transcendental realm the Khitan and their horses would exist side by side, as they had done in life. It was therefore imperative to equip a person for riding, hunting and fighting on horseback in the afterlife when preparing them for burial.
 
This requirement is clearly indicated by the prominence of equestrian artefacts in Liao tombs. These objects are characterised by sumptuous materials and lavish decoration which is brimming with imagination and ingenuity. Bridles, saddles, stirrups, riding boots, mudguards and harnesses which have been inlaid with jade, plated in gold, laced with silver, lavishly carved or painted with intricate designs are recurrent features of upper class Liao tombs. Looking at these objects you get a clear sense of the many tireless hours which would have been spent searching for and acquiring the correct materials, creating meaningful designs and crafting, cutting, carving, moulding and polishing them to perfection. The deep reverence of the horse is palpable.
 
Many of the objects presented in our exhibition Tombs of the Liao Dynasty: Treasures from the Afterlife tell the story of this intimate connection which the Khitan shared with their horses. For this blog post we have selected five beautiful equestrian objects from the collection which provide a glimpse into this enduring bond which lay at the heart of nomadic existence, both in life and in death.

Gilt silver boots with design of phoenixes | Tomb of the Princess of Chen, Naiman Banner, Tongliao City | Gilded silver | Liao dynasty | Inner Mongolia Archaeological Research Institute

Gilt silver boots with design of phoenixes | Tomb of the Princess of Chen, Naiman Banner, Tongliao City | Gilded silver | Liao dynasty | Inner Mongolia Archaeological Research Institute

Silver bridle ornaments inlaid with gold | Tomb of the Prince of Wei, Chifeng City | Iron, gold and silver inlay, bronze | Liao dynasty | Inner Mongolia Museum

Silver bridle ornaments inlaid with gold | Tomb of the Prince of Wei, Chifeng City | Iron, gold and silver inlay, bronze | Liao dynasty | Inner Mongolia Museum

Silver breastplate inlaid with jade with gilt iron stirrups | Tomb of the Princess of Chen, Naiman Banner, Tongliao City | Silver, jade, gilded iron | Liao dynasty | Inner Mongolia Archaeological Research Institute

Silver breastplate inlaid with jade with gilt iron stirrups | Tomb of the Princess of Chen, Naiman Banner, Tongliao City | Silver, jade, gilded iron | Liao dynasty | Inner Mongolia Archaeological Research Institute

Painted silver mudguard | Tomb of the Princess of Chen, Naiman Banner, Tongliao City | Silver with painted decoration | Liao dynasty | Inner Mongolia Archaeological Research Institute

Painted silver mudguard | Tomb of the Princess of Chen, Naiman Banner, Tongliao City | Silver with painted decoration | Liao dynasty | Inner Mongolia Archaeological Research Institute

Silver bridle with animal-shaped jade | Tomb of the Princess of Chen, Naiman Banner, Tongliao City | Silver, jade, gilded iron | Liao dynasty | Inner Mongolia Archaeological Research Institute

Silver bridle with animal-shaped jade | Tomb of the Princess of Chen, Naiman Banner, Tongliao City | Silver, jade, gilded iron | Liao dynasty | Inner Mongolia Archaeological Research Institute

THE EXHIBITION TOMBS OF THE LIAO DYNASTY: TREASURES FROM THE AFTERLIFE IS AVAILABLE FOR HIRE 2016 – 2020. THE EXHIBITION IS PRODUCED BY NOMAD EXHIBITIONS IN PARTNERSHIP WITH INNER MONGOLIA MUSEUM. TO VIEW THE FULL EXHIBITION BOOK PLEASE CONTACT US AT INFO@NOMADEXHIBITIONS.COM