Qing:  Engaging with Special Collections and Research

Dr Kathy Davies from our Exhibitions and Public Engagement with Research team reflects on the varied engagement activities we staged for the Qing: China’s Multilingual Empire exhibition

Qing: China’s Multilingual Empire opened to the public on 21 October 2021 and ran for just over 4 months until March 2022. The focus of the Qing exhibition was the languages and culture of China’s last dynasty, Qing, and featured new research funded by the University of Manchester with support from the Confucius Institute. The exhibition, curated by Dr Johannes Lotze (Postdoctoral Researcher, Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and Julianne Simpson (Collections and Discovery Manager, Rylands) aimed to raise the profile of the Rylands’ Chinese collections among researchers and students. It also sought to engage diverse public audiences with some of the extraordinary items in these collections, and to develop understanding of the importance of these collections in Chinese history.

Exhibition Highlights

One of the highlights on display was the first of two 18th-century scrolls (both over 20 metres in length!) that depicted Emperor Kangxi’s 60th birthday celebrations. Visitors also had the chance to explore the scroll in more detail using the digital screen in the exhibition space. Conversations about the cultural exchange following European encounters with China, and evolving perceptions of Chinese culture, were of particular interest to visitors. Chinese language guides were also provided and proved very popular among Chinese visitors, with all 500 printed copies being used.

When visitors came to the end of their journey through the exhibition, they were asked to consider the role of different languages in their own lives. They then wrote their thoughts on luggage tags, which were hung from a display board. The range of languages from all over the world that were displayed each day reflected the diverse range of visitors to the exhibition.

Public Engagement with Research

The Qing exhibition was the first ever to be supported from the get-go by the John Rylands’ Exhibitions and Public Engagement with Research (EPER) team. The purpose of the team is to support impactful engagement with special collections and academic research, primarily for people outside of academia. Over the course of the exhibition the team supported several activities led by curators and researchers, with this purpose in mind.

Public engagement activities organised by the team began with the Rylands’ participation in the Being Human Festival in November 2021. The Rylands contributed to a series of films on ‘Chinese Collections in the City’ which, through the voices of researchers and community groups, told a city-wide story of civic Chinese collections across Manchester. Over the following months, the EPER team facilitated collection encounters, exhibition tours, other in-person and online events, and blog posts to open up the Rylands’ Chinese collections and related research to public audiences.

Gemma Henderson (EPER Team) inspecting the unfurled scroll prior to a Collection Encounter

Collection Encounters

Collections encounters provided an opportunity to see one of the Qing dynasty scrolls up close and to speak to PhD researcher, Anastasiia Akulich, about her work in relation to the object. The ‘drop-in’ format of the collection encounter meant a steady stream of visitors arrived in the Historic Reading Room, allowing for meaningful 1-2-1 conversations.

During the encounters, we spoke to a British man who had lived in China for 9 years and was particularly interested in Chinese culture, as well as a recent Salford graduate and her family. A girl of primary school age marvelled at the size of the scroll, and a woman from Derby was enthralled when Anastasiia explained the wood block printing techniques used to make it. Another visitor from the US had a broader fascination with historical objects and was very excited to get a picture with the scroll.

Exhibition Tours

Exhibition tours were also a popular feature of the Qing exhibition. These tours were delivered by Dr Gregory Scott, Senior Lecturer in Chinese Culture and History. Gregory used Chinese language with Chinese speakers during his tours, which was well received by attendees. Comments on the tours from visitors stated that they ‘learned a lot’, that the experience was ‘enjoyable’, ‘fascinating’, ‘Interesting’, and ‘stimulating’. They described the collection as ‘wonderful’ and called Gregory ‘an absolute star!’.

Dr Gregory Scott engaging students with the exhibition during one of his tours
Image credit: @GM_China_Forum
Jack Hardman (EPER Team) supporting an exhibition tour led by Dr Gregory Scott
Image credit: @GM_China_Forum

Learning and Teaching with Special Collections

As well as engaging public audiences with research, working with academics to use special collections in teaching and learning is a central focus for the Rylands. In December 2021, the Rylands hosted Dr Stephen Whiteman and ten Postgraduate Students from The Courtauld Institute of Art. In January 2022 we were visited by the Manchester China Friendship Programme. The following month, Professor Yangwen Zheng (in collaboration with Julianne Simpson) delivered a seminar for thirty students for the ‘China & the West: From the Opium War to the Olympic Games’ history module. In March 2022, just prior to the exhibition’s close, Dr Gregory Scott and Dr Pao-chen Tang used the special collections for their ‘Introduction to Chinese Studies’ module. Other teaching and learning events included an online talk for the Manchester China Institute by exhibition curator, Dr Johannes Lotze.

University of Manchester students attending a teaching session at the Rylands

Many of these events were also facilitated by the EPER team, both on an operational level (helping with set-up and making sure no one gets lost!) and in terms of student experience. During the visit from the Manchester China Friendship Program in January 2022, for example, EPER Assistant Dr Kathy Davies supported a student collection encounter with Dr Gregory Scott and the Qing Scroll. Kathy particularly enjoyed explaining the significance of special collections in historical research. These discussions with students complimented the main conversations had during the session around Gregory’s subject-specific expertise.

Engaging with Chinese Collections

Over 35,000 visitors from all over the world came to the Qing exhibition. That is impressive, especially considering the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions that impacted the exhibition’s run. It was possible because of the joint effort made across all levels of the Institute and Library, from research to installation, to ensuring the building could open safely, to providing an excellent visitor experience.

The Kangxi Scroll in the Historic Reading Room post-Collection Encounter

The Qing exhibition was part of an ongoing programme of work to raise the profile of the Chinese collections. The exhibition was preceded by a new catalogue of the Chinese books (2018), a survey report (2019) by Dr Johannes Lotze, digitisation of items in the collections, and ongoing conservation work on the large collection of 19th-century pith watercolour albums. Future plans include a new catalogue of the Chinese visual collections and further digitisation and conservation of some of the most significant items here at the Rylands.

Any one is welcome to access our collections for their own research. You can view digitised items online or view items in-person in our modern reading room. Find more details about ‘what’s on’ and the Rylands via our exhibitions and events page.

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