On February 3, 2019, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will open to the public its new galleries of Chinese art following a comprehensive ten-month, $2 million renovation and reinstallation project. The first in more than 40 years for this renowned collection, it represents the next step in an ongoing series of reinstallations that began with the Rodin Museum in 2012 and continued with the renovation of the galleries of South Asian art in 2016. The museum’s rich holdings of Chinese art span more than 4,000 years of artistic achievement, and this new presentation brings it to life in fresh and revealing ways. Opening with a family festival celebrating the Lunar New Year—the Year of the Pig—it benefits from a multi-year study of interpretation strategies, including the development of new learning resources, workshops for training teachers, and tours for schoolchildren.
Among the improvements are new gallery furniture and the creation of far better sight lines through the sequence of galleries. Antiquated lighting has been replaced with flexible energy-efficient LED lighting, while new purpose-built display cases, some equipped with internal lighting that dramatically improve viewing clarity, provide exceptional flexibility for display. Honey-toned oak flooring has replaced painted concrete, adding warmth to the installation throughout. Overall the changes will give curators the opportunity to regularly refresh the installations and to offer returning visitors new works to experience over time. Many of the works on display have been sensitively treated by the museum’s teams of highly skilled specialists in the department of Conservation.
Timothy Rub, the George D. Widener Director and Chief Executive Officer, said: “This once-in-a-generation project will transform the experience of one of the most important parts of our collection. It will foster a greater appreciation of Chinese culture and underscore the relevance of these works to China today. Because this project is proceeding in tandem with many other ambitious changes occurring during the implementation of our Facilities Master Plan, visitors will find many surprises awaiting them whenever they visit the museum in the months ahead.”
The project is led by Hiromi Kinoshita, The Hannah L. and J. Welles Henderson Associate Curator of Chinese Art. Her reinstallation embraces Chinese art in all media, including paintings, sculpture, porcelains, ceramics, carvings, metalwork, costume and textiles, furniture, and contemporary works of art. The museum has used historical graphics in key wall locations to provide a richer context for the collection and to create an experience that is evocative of both time and place. While some of the windows in these galleries have been enclosed to allow for the display of light-sensitive textiles and paintings, in other places they have been revealed to offer views to the museum’s East Terrace and its monumental portico.
The first two galleries, dedicated to The Afterlife: Tombs and Immortality, highlight the collection’s strength in Chinese funerary art of the Han (206 BCE – 220 CE) to Tang (618–907) dynasties and explore ideas of afterlife and reverence for ancestors. The installation illuminates the belief that the human spirit continued following death, including works that reveal the purpose of tombs as underground dwellings furnished with objects for protection, nourishment, and entertainment. Among the highlights is a set of sarcophagus panels that have not been on view in many decades. Of a type seldom found in collections outside of China, they convey aspects of everyday life of the elite of more a thousand years ago. Other works made for the tomb show how the interchange of ideas, religion, and trade along the Silk Road influenced Chinese culture and art of 8th-century China. Buddhism, which arrived from India through the Silk Road, also shaped Chinese ideas of life after death as seen in works made for temples and tombs.
The next gallery, entitled Looking Inwards: Nature and Self-Cultivation, focuses on works that were made, used, or collected by Chinese scholars and artists, from the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) onwards. These reflect artistic traditions and practices that were informed by ideas of the human relationship to the cosmos and the pursuit of harmony with the natural world. Works inspired by nature from the Song dynasty (960–1279) onwards will also be displayed in this gallery. Flowers often symbolized human virtues—the painted orchid representing purity, resilience, and loyalty—or could be used to denote the seasons. Natural materials were especially appreciated for their simple beauty: a seemingly plain wooden box is made up of slender strips of wood veneer. Jade was appreciated for its smoothness, solidity, and translucency, the embodiment of virtues considered to be gentlemanly, and offered qualities of simplicity and modesty. Artistic activities such as painting, tea and wine-drinking, and viewing antiques were carried out in nature and gardens in the pursuit of higher ideals.
A gallery focused on the 16th century to the present explores the theme of Looking Outwards: China and the West. It encourages visitors to understand the abiding interest of the West in Chinese art and highlights the evolution of the export market, which created a frenzy for collecting porcelain in Europe. The ceramics on display illustrate how certain aspects of Chinese porcelain—such as “blue-and-white”—inspired European artisans. At the same time, the Chinese adopted European techniques and materials, including enameling, glass-making and engraving, representing a remarkable example of cultural exchange.
Another gallery is dedicated to Ordering the Universe: The Imperial Court. Featuring works collected and used by the court, it emphasizes the highly symbolic nature of Chinese art, with designs and colors conveying rank, authority, and prestige. Auspicious motifs found in silk robes, porcelain, and other art suggest the formal side of court life (ruling) in contrast with the informal, private side.
This new presentation of the collection makes direct interpretive connections to the museum’s three celebrated Chinese architectural interiors in adjacent galleries, all from Beijing and newly reinstalled. The 17th century Palace Reception Hall is resplendent with imperial-related themed works and with auspicious messages, all complementing the motifs of luck and good fortune that decorate the room’s imposing wooden beams high overhead. Once part of an official residence, the Reception Hall has been equipped with new lighting, revealing the remarkable, colorful painted decoration adorning the structure. Many of the works in this gallery are richly spotlighted, including a spectacular dog cage, fully decorated in cloisonné enamel, which likely would have been made for a Pekingese, a favored pet among ladies of the Qing court.
The 18th century Scholar’s Study, serene and contemplative, features implements associated with the life and activities of a scholar-official. The Ceiling from the Hall of Wisdom Transformed from the
Zhihuasi Temple, an early Ming Dynasty Buddhist monastery in Beijing, contains an elaborately carved 15th-century temple ceiling, from one of the earliest and best-preserved examples of Chinese monastic architecture. A recently developed digital interactive greatly enhances the opportunity for visitors to understand more fully the imagery and iconography of this remarkable ceiling, and rotating displays from the museum’s rich collection of over 600 textile sutra covers are planned for this space.
Dr. Kinoshita stated: “Updating these galleries will have a significant impact on our visitors’ experience of this part of our collection. We hope that the more visually engaging displays and new thematic arrangements will enable them to connect with the works, whatever their interests. It is a pleasure also to introduce works held in other departments—for example, Costume and Textiles, Print, Drawings and Photography, and Contemporary Art—and to integrate them with the collections for which I am responsible, to show the breadth and richness of the art of China.”
Coinciding with the reopening of its galleries of Chinese art, the museum has published Art of China: Highlights from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in association with Yale University Press (256 pp.) This lavishly illustrated book features nearly one hundred highlights ranging from antiquity to the present day. It includes an introductory essay by Dr. Kinoshita about the collection’s formation, illuminating its unique character and importance. The volume ($45) is now available for purchase in the Museum Store or online via philamuseum.org.
Paper over board
9 x 11 inches
Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2018
The reinstallation of the museum’s galleries of Chinese Art was made possible by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation Hannah L. Henderson, Marguerite Lenfest, Maxine de S. Lewis, June and Simon K.C. Li, Joan F. Thalheimer, Andrea Baldeck, M.D., Sueyun and Gene Locks, Peter A. Benoliel and Willo Carey, Barbara B. and Theodore R. Aronson, The Women’s Committee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cynthia L. Johnson, Frank S. Bayley, Suzanne F. Boda and George W. Grindahl, Dr. Alan M. and Deena Gu Laties, Peggy Wachs, two anonymous donors, and other generous donors.
About the Collection of Chinese Art
The Philadelphia Museum of Art houses one of the country’s earliest Chinese art collections, initially established through purchases made at the Centennial International Exhibition held in Philadelphia in 1876. Today it includes more than 7000 works in a wide range of media spanning more than 4000 years. Strengths include Tang dynasty (618–907) tomb figures, Song dynasty (960–1127) ceramics as well as Ming (1368–1644) and Qing dynasty (1644–1911) imperial art and Buddhist sculpture. The collection includes more than 500 paintings, dating from the 12th to the 20th centuries, as well as costumes and textiles, furniture, jades, lacquer wares, and cloisonné. It also features three remarkable architectural interiors: an early 15th century coffered ceiling from an imperial Buddhist temple, a 17th century painted wood reception hall, and an 18th century scholar’s study that provide context for the collection and an exceptional immersive experience.
Family Festival: Lunar New Year
Sunday, February 3, 2019
10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
Great Stair Hall Balcony
Free after Pay What You Wish admission
Squeal with delight as we ring in the Year of the Pig.
- Balcony Studio
10:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m.
Create a lunar calendar with teaching artist Ash Limés Castellana, known for her prints inspired by the moon.
11:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m.
(Tours depart at the top of the hour)
- Dance Performances
11:30 a.m. & 1:30 p.m.
Enjoy performances inspired by ancient Chinese legends from the Nai-Ni Chen dance company.
Final Fridays: Celestial Bodies
Friday, February 22, 2019
5:00 p.m. – 8:45 p.m.
Free after admission
Explore the cosmos with telescopes from the Franklin Institute, and enjoy astrology and astronomy-inspired workshops with Alice Sparkly Kat, as well as performances by the Kun-Yang Lin Dancers. Presented in conjunction with the reopening of the Chinese Galleries
Museum Studio: Pop-Up Cards
Wednesday, February 27, 2019
6:00 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Meet in Great Stair HallPaid tickets required
$40 ($32 members); includes Museum admission
Search for auspicious symbols in our new Chinese galleries and then make your own pop-up cards with artist Colette Fu.
Musicians on Horseback, Tang dynasty (618-907), mid-7th century. Earthenware with traces of pigment. Height of tallest 12 5/16 inches. Gift of Charles H. Ludington from the George Crofts Collection, 1923.