Conferences Louise Tythacott - School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London March 25, 2022

The lives of objects stolen from China’s Yuanmingyuan or old ‘Summer Palace’

This paper, titled Stolen Objects from China: The Histories and Biographies of Yuanmingyuan ('Summer Palace') Collections in British and French Museums,  explores the lives of objects stolen from China's Yuanmingyuan, or old 'Summer Palace', to the northwest of Beijing.

This paper, titled Stolen Objects from China: The Histories and Biographies of Yuanmingyuan (‘Summer Palace’) Collections in British and French Museums,  explores the lives of objects stolen from China’s Yuanmingyuan, or old ‘Summer Palace’, to the northwest of Beijing.

Initiated by the Kangxi emperor (r. 1662-1722) in the early 18th century, the site was developed by his grandson, the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736-1795). At around 350 hectares, it included thousands of buildings across a vast landscape: it also housed China’s imperial art collections – paintings, calligraphy, porcelain, bronzes, textiles and cloisonné.

In October 1860, at the culmination of the Second Opium War, British and French regiments looted the buildings in the Yuanmingyuan. British troops then proceeded to burn the entire site. This widespread destruction of China’s most important complex of palaces, and the dispersal of the imperial art collection, is considered one of the worst acts of cultural vandalism of the 19th century. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands of objects are estimated to have been stolen from the Yuanmingyuan. Many of these are now scattered worldwide, in private collections and public museums. This paper will analyse the biographies of objects from the Yuanmingyuan in the U.K. and French museums. It will focus on military officers involved in the looting – men such as Elgin, Grant, Gordon, Wolseley, Crealock, Montauban and Negroni – and will document the trajectories of the material they brought back with them to both Britain and France. Some pieces were displayed at major public exhibitions (the 1862 International Exhibition and the Crystal Palace in London), while other artefacts were donated or bequeathed to museums in the late 19th-early 20th century. The talk will also explore the role of the art market – especially Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and smaller provincial auction houses – in promoting the collecting of ‘Summer Palace’ loot, and the shifting interpretations given to this material from the late 19th century onwards. Once relocated to the UK and France, ‘Summer Palace’ material was transformed and reformed to fit the aesthetics and tastes of the time, and the talk thus explores the distinctive meanings and values attributed to Yuanmingyuan artefacts by a range of British and French collectors.

Louise Tythacott

Louise Tythacott is a Professor of Curating and Museology at the School of Oriental and African Studies (S.O.A.S.), University of London. Before joining S.O.A.S., she worked as Woon Tai Jee’s Professor of Asian Art at Northumbria University. She was the academic lead for the International Research Centre for the History and Culture of Nanzhao and Dali Kingdoms. She was formerly Pratapaditya Pal Senior Lecturer, then Professor, in Curating and Museology of Asian Art at S.O.A.S. (2014-20); Lecturer in Museology at the University of Manchester (2003-14); and Curator of Asian Collections at National Museums Liverpool (1996-2003). She was the lead curator for the World Cultures gallery at World Museum Liverpool, with specific responsibilities for the Asia and Buddhism displays. She has also worked as curator of a private Burmese textile collection, an Exhibitions Officer at the Royal Pavilion, Art Gallery & Museums, Brighton, a Managing Editor of the journal, Museum and Society – and she continues to work on museum projects and curate exhibitions.
Louise’s research focuses on collecting and displaying Chinese and Buddhist art in museums. She recently co-edited a volume with Panggah Ardiyansyah, Returning Southeast Asia’s Past: Objects, Museums and Restitution (N.U.S. Press, 2020). From 2017-2018, Louise secured a significant philanthropic donation to research the histories of objects looted from China’s Yuanmingyuan in British and French museum collections and is presently completing a monograph on the ‘Summer Palace Diaspora’.
Her books include Surrealism and the Exotic (Routledge, 2003); The Lives of Chinese Objects: Buddhism, Imperialism and Display (Berghahn, 2011); Museums and Restitution: New Practices, New Approaches (Ashgate, 2014, co-edited with Kostas Arvanitis); Collecting and Displaying China’s ‘Summer Palace’ in the West: The Yuanmingyuan in Britain and France (Routledge, 2017); and Returning Southeast Asia’s Past: Objects, Museums, and Restitution (N.U.S. Press, 2020 co-edited with Panggah Ardiyansyah).
Louise is an elected Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, the Royal Asiatic Society, the Royal Anthropological Institute and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

Research-based art practices in Southeast Asia

Research-based art practices in Southeast Asia

Artistic "incursions" into academic fields are challenging the established system of knowledge production and, in particular, its domination by local authoritative discourses. This research seeks to analyse the creative entanglement of academic and artistic research in Southeast Asia, particularly Cambodia, Myanmar, Singapore and Vietnam, and to examine its epistemological significance as a potential new mode of knowledge production.

Caroline Ha Tuc, independent Hong Kong-based art writer, researcher and curator, 2022