Week 13: Western collectors

Congrats! This week is the last week with new course contents!

Western art collectors became interested in Chinese art (other than porcelain, discussed previously) in the second half of the nineteenth century. Buying art was not always easy: they competed against Chinese and Japanese collectors. But momentous changes in the international political situation around that time opened up the art market to Western capital, as the Qing government crumbled and was no longer able to defend its territory against foreign encroachment.

This week, you can write a traditional blog post, or you can choose between two more creative options which will equally allow you to demonstrate your engagement with and understanding of the course materials. Check out the assignment description for the Initial Post

Table of Contents


Qing China was since the middle of the nineteenth century subject to pressures from imperialist powers from the West to concede parts of their territory and rights for trade, and various military conflicts led to looting of treasures, which ended up in the West. That raises all sorts of ethical questions about museum collections even when items were donated by private collectors, if you don’t know for certain where they in turn got those items (the issue of “provenance”).

The video in this week’s Basic Set gives you the basic historical background, the podcast takes up the moral issues surrounding many of the collections in Western museums of non-European art (but not specifically China). Since it was broadcast, a number of museums have repatriated artefacts, or have made concrete plans to do so. If you are interested in pursuing the ethical questions further, please Choose Option 1.

Option 2 looks at donated and legally bought art, rather than looted, through the figure of John Ferguson, who created the initial collection for the Metropolitan Museum, through the friendships he had created with many different Qing officials in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Through it all is woven the big question: who gets to decide which art deserves space in the museum; what are museums for; and what was/is/should be the relationship between a museum, its collection, the culture on display, and the people that are represented through that collection.


Basic set (for everybody)

Watch the video, listen to the podcast, and then pick either Option 1 OR Option 2 (you can, of course, read both, but I know you’re all short on time at this point in the semester)

  • “The Treasures of China”, by Justin Jacobs. Indiana Jones in History: From Pompei to the Moon. (Youtube link)
  • “A Question of Artefacts”, presented by David Baker. Analysis, BBC Radio 4. (podcast with transcription)
    • NOTE: this is a machine transcription, far from perfect!

OPTIONAL/USEFUL STUDY AID: If you need more historical background, either of these textbooks will help you find your way:

  • Dillon, Michael. China: A Modern History. London: I.B. Tauris, 2010
    • This will give you a broad overview; chapter 2 focuses more on internal issues but foreign influences play an important role in the Taiping rebellion. (ebook Trexler): Chapters 1-5 – use the headings to navigate quickly.
  • Moïse Edwin E. Modern China: A History Third ed. Harlow, England: Pearson/Longman, 2008.
    • This is a super-condensed version and may be a bit too concise but useful if you’re short on time. (ebook Trexler):Chapters 2

Option 1: focus on ethics

  • Metrick-Chen, Lenore. Collecting Objects/excluding People : Chinese Subjects and American Visual Culture, 1830-1900. Albany N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2012. (PDF)
    • Excerpts from chapter 2 (indicated with red brackets). The first part of the chapter talks about the ideas and “mission” behind the creation of the first big art museums in the US (Boston’s Museum for Fine Arts, and the Metropolitan Museum in New York) from a more general perspective. The indicated sections focus more on the interactions with Chinese and Japanese art.
      • Bear in mind that all this took place against a background of increasing anti-Chinese sentiment. The Chinese exclusion act was voted into law in 1882.
      • Guiding questions: What is the impact of Chinese and Japanese art on the art scene in America? Who got to decide what the canon was of Chinese art?

Option 2: focus on aesthetics

  • Netting, Lara Jaishree. A Perpetual Fire : John C. Ferguson and His Quest for Chinese Art and Culture. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013.(PDF)
    • “Chapter 4: ‘A Number of the Paintings Are Not of the High Order Desirable for This Museum”.
    • John Ferguson (mentioned in the “Treasures in China” video was given the task by the new Metropolitan Museum in New York to buy Chinese art for the collection. Ferguson had learned his trade from Chinese art dealers and collectors – and he shared many of the problems we saw on last week, with authenticating paintings from the earlier dynasties.

Optional Extras

  • There are more sections of the documentary by Justin Jacobs, including one about Dunhuang (see week 5, Western Regions).
  • Bowie, Theodore Robert. Langdon Warner through His Letters. Indiana University Humanities Series, No. 62. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966.
    • Langdon Warner was an art historian of East Asia, a teacher, and once upon a time a collector for various American museums. He also damaged some of the murals in Dunhuang he was trying to bring back for the Fogg Museum (Boston, Harvard) – I draw your attention to the description of the (failed) technique on p. 114. (PDF, 35min read). This is about as close to “Indiana Jones” as we get in this course, but if you’re interested in this stuff, please check out the following:
      • Jacobs, Justin. The Compensations of Plunder: How China Lost Its Treasures. Silk Roads. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020. (ebook Trexler, brand-new acquisition, I haven’t had a chance to read it yet)
      • Hopkirk, Peter. Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Cities and Treasures of Chinese Central Asia. London: Murray, 1980. (classic stuff about Dunhuang and connected sites from Week 5)
  • Repatriated animal head sculpture returns to Old Summer Palace.” Xinhuanet.com, Nov. 13 2019.
    • If you need a re-fresher on the origin and destruction of the Old Summer Palace and its significance, please see Option 2, week 8, earlier this semester.
  • Herman, Alexander. “The British Museum must recognise its own powers in matter of restitution.” The Art Newspaper. May 29, 2019.
    • While not specific about the issue of Chinese objects, the dynamics are similar (or more pronounced), and this piece shows that the debate continues. (12 min)
  • Hastings, Makiko. “Naming DOES matter (my thought on cultural appropriation)”. Makikohastings.blogspot.com.
    • Where does inspiration end, and appropriation begin? Who gets to decide if you can use or participation in another culture’s concept, idea, or tradition? Cultural awareness, or even better cultural humility can go a long way. (18 min read)
  • How should museums engage with their not so nice past? Here is one example of a “New panel on source of Horniman family wealth at newly reopened @HornimanMuseum showing indirect link to opium trade” (Nick Merriman)
One example of a museum engaging with its difficult past (via Nick Merriman on twitter)


Feedback on the reflections about artisans:

2 points, due by Tuesday Nov. 17, 11.59PM

You know the drill 🙂 Read more and become a better reader and writer, as you learn from others’ insights and feedback. Here are two students’ Reflection posts on Western collectors and museums, please comment on both:

  • Post 1:
  • Post 2:
  • Comment using Hypothes.is group HST137
  • Content: example: draw the writer’s attention to something they missed, or point out how they highlight something you weren’t aware of.
  • Style: do you have tips how the writer can make their reflection pack a tighter punch? Does the writer have great sentences or choice of words? What would you like to emulate? Share it!
    • Note: Spelling and phrasing are not the most important, but if you notice a pattern, it is helpful to point it out.

When you’re ready, head over to Canvas and fill out the Declaration Quiz to claim your points.

– I commented on two fellow students’ end of week reflections on readings about collectors, using the Hypothes.is group HST137.
– I made sure to leave substantial comments that help the writer to improve the post, or to identify their strengths.
– I left comments that I would like to receive myself: thoughtful, helpful, kind, but also pointing out errors so they can be fixed.

Initial post

3 points, due by Tuesday Nov 17, 11:59PM, but start reading earlier so you have time to digest.

Read through the basic set pick one of the two options; add in the extras based on time and interest. You have multiple options for the initial blog post this week:

  • Option A : a “traditional” blog post with your thoughts and musings on the assigned readings
  • Option B: Use this handout from an in-class exercise from last year to respond to the materials in option 1. What would a late nineteenth/early twentieth century pressure group do to increase visibility of East Asian art in the Met, and to hire more knowledgeable staff?
  • Option C: Use this PDF from an in-class exercise last year. It contains paintings, and the catalog description from 1914 from John Ferguson, who bought them on behalf of the Metropolitan Museum. Compare those with the information you now find on the Met website (links provided in the document). What are the differences? Was Ferguson’s mission successful? How would you describe his achievements? Use the information from the reading in Option 2 to help you understand your answer.

Then write your blog post, at least 200 words (but likely more for options B or C)

  • Include the bibliographic references for the materials you choose, so we know which ones you picked.
    • Top tip: copy-paste from the list, they are (hopefully) correctly formatted in bibliography format for Chicago Notes and Bibliography style.
    • No need to copy the (PDF) or (ebook Trexler library) bit, that’s just there to help you!
  • Add an image that illustrates the topic of your post, with a caption and credit for the image (e.g. a hyperlink to the source).
  • Include the word artisans (<– oops, should have been museum, it’s ok, the blog stream will pick up both) in the title
  • Add it to the category hst137 on your blog.

This post is your “opening salvo” in a discussion of these course materials. This is also the place where you can ask questions about things you don’t understand: perhaps there are contradictions in or between the texts you read, or you can’t make head or tail of something?

When you’re done, read this declaration carefully, and then fill out the Canvas quiz to collect your points.

– I wrote a post of about 200 words in response to the readings about artisans (erm… my bad: museums/western collectors) and craftspeople.
– I included the bibliographic references for the materials I used for my post.
– I included an image, and provided a caption and credit (source) for the image.
– I use the word artisans/museum in the title, added the post to category hst137

Discussion and comments in Hypothes.is

2 points, due Thursday Nov. 19 by 11.59pm.

Below you find links to four blog posts from your fellow students. If one of the websites is your own, or it is twice the same person’s, refresh the page, and you should get new sites. Please comment on all four:

  • Post 1:
  • Post 2:
  • Post 3:
  • Post 4:

Leave feedback, questions, thoughts, insights about the contents of the posts of your fellow students, using Hypothes.is group HST137. You can ask for clarifications, point out similarities and differences with the material you covered, or with your interpretation. This should encourage you to nose around a bit deeper in the materials you maybe gave less attention in the first round.

Use the “Architect’s Model” of giving feedback, and engage with concrete issues. Go beyond “Yeah, I agree,” “I like” or “I think the same”, and instead explain why you have that reaction, or if you disagree, you can try to persuade the original poster of your idea or interpretation.

Remember that Hypothes.is allows for hyperlinks, e.g. to materials that support your argument, or you can include pictures (memes! [yes, there she is again]), videos etc. that help the original poster to learn more.

When you’ve commented on four posts, read this declaration carefully, and then fill out the Canvas quiz to collect your points.

– I commented on four fellow students’ initial posts on the readings about Western collectors and museums, using Hypothes.is group HST137.
– I made sure to leave substantial comments that move the discussion forward and help to create better insights, and go beyond a “nice” or “great”.
– I left comments that I would like to receive myself: thoughtful, helpful, kind, but also pointing out errors so they can be fixed.

End of week reflection (on Western collectors and museums)

3 points, due on Sunday, Nov. 22 by 11:59PM

If you really engaged with the topic of Western collectors and museums, your insights have changed over the course of the week, and you’ll likely have encountered new information in your colleagues’ posts that you did not cover in your readings. What have you learned about how Westerners collected Chinese art in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century; the attitudes of museums towards their collections of East Asian art; or the differences and similarities with the Chinese collectors we looked at last week?

Just like before, in your post you will also include three bullet points “Things I learned this week” – what do you know now about this topic in premodern China that you did not know at the start of this week?

  • Write a blog post of appr. 200 words (more is fine if you have Ideas), include the bibliographic details of the texts you refer to or engage with.
    • How have your ideas changed?
    • How will you look differently at museums and galleries now you know what you know?
    • What new research questions can you ask, that you never thought about before?
  • Add your three bullet points with “Things I learned this week”.
  • Use the word Reflection in the title, and use the tag week13, and add to category hst137.

When you’re done, read this declaration carefully, and then fill out the Canvas quiz to collect your points.

– I wrote a blog post of appr. 200 words to demonstrate my changed/enhanced understanding of artisans and craftspeople in early Chinese history.
– I included a list with the bibliographic references of the texts I used to create my post.
– I added three bullet points under the heading “Three things I learned this week”.
– I use the word Reflection in the title, used the tag week13, and added the post to category hst137 .

Demo and Test: Final Project display site

Demo video coming soon!

If you like, you can already try it out and see if you can submit something on the test site: just click in the left-hand menu bar on “Add to Pool” and fill out the form. I’ll add a demo video soon, but it should be very easy to add a link to your page, and an image, and have it show up on the front page of the demo site. Submit anything you like with a comment and a link. If in doubt, use a cat picture, of course!

Please head on over to the Cloud Lounge and suggest names for the URL and the name of the Final Project site. It is your project, after all (I’m just hosting it).

Extra Credit Tasks

EC 13-2: Follow that Footnote!

3 points, due by Sunday, Nov. 22, 11.59pm.

Read the instructions on this separate webpage , incl. the link there to the declaration quiz.

EC 13-2 Extra commenting

Due by Sunday, Nov. 22, 11.59pm; 2 points for 4 additional blogs

Do you like reading your colleagues’ work? Do you like helping them out by identifying ways to make their posts better? Here’s some good news! You can earn extra credit by doing extra commenting! This assignment will be available regularly throughout the semester.

  • Go to the Blog Stream of the Class
  • Pick a post that piques your curiosity and that you have not yet commented on
  • Use Hypothes.is group HST137, and leave feedback as we practiced with the Architects’s model
  • Pick 3 other posts: they can come from other students in the blog stream, or if you like the writer, you can stay with them and comment more.
  • The only conditions are
    • that you do not comment on blog posts you already commented on before, as part of your regular weekly “sourdough starter” tasks.
    • that the post is actually written for HST137, and not some other class. Check the category, and the content 🙃
  • Add the tag extra to the comment (this helps me to keep track of how many people use this option.)

When you’re done, please read this declaration carefully and then collect your points on Canvas with the Declaration Quiz.

I selected three blogs I have not yet commented on before, from our class’ blog stream, and I used the Hypothes.is group HST137.
I made sure to leave substantial comments that help the writer to improve the post, or to identify their strengths.
I added the tag extra to my Hypothes.is comments.
I left comments that I would like to receive myself: thoughtful, helpful, kind, but also pointing out errors so they can be fixed.

Where to ask questions?

Remember that it is highly likely that you are not the only one with that question. Save me time, and help your fellow students by asking questions where others can see them. If you know the answer to a question, jump in! I can’t be everywhere all the time.

Missing link? Wrong information? Typos? Email me!

“See something? Say something!”