Power Play: China’s Empress Dowager

On exhibit at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Portrait of Empress Cixi

Image courtesy Freer Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution

One of the reasons I love exhibitions and museums is that they offer opportunities for storytelling and consequently, re-telling, as well. Most museums today are progressive in the sense that they continue a tradition of scholarship and service for the enhancement of public education. While some museums favor presentation methods might be simple and direct, without many opportunities for interactives, they stimulate public interest through the stories in their objects and exhibitions.

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Image by Renee Alfonso

One such exhibition I had the chance to see recently was Power Play: China’s Empress Dowager, at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian. The Freer and Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian produce exhibitions on Asian Art and house the Smithsonian’s Asian Art collection. This was a special exhibition on photographic prints from the glass plate negatives of the photos in the Freer Sackler Collection.

The exhibition itself is about the Chinese Dowager Empress Cixi, who is widely known through common history as the dominant political figure of the Qing dynasty, from the 1860’s until her death in the early 20th century. She was the regent to two successive emperors and was known to be a conservative and tough leader, earning her the monicker of “Dragon Lady”.

Portrait of Empress Dowager Cixi

Image courtesy Freer Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution

The photographs that comprise the exhibition were part of a political campaign by the Qing royal court to improve the Empress’ undesirable image. Mainly given out as diplomatic gifts and also distributed throughout China (most likely as propaganda for the Qing court), the portraits helped form the ubiqitous “Dragon Lady” we all known in popular culture, but are also windows into a dying lifestyle and the private life of an unparalleled female political figure.

Dowager Empress Cixi

Image courtesy Freer Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution

Organized into five sections, the exhibition seeks to provide a deeper and more complex portrait of the Empress by analyzing the subtle themes in each set of photographic prints. Each set of themed photographs convey the intentions of Cixi and her court through specific symbols and imagery. The photographs themselves were taken by a court photographer hired specifically for the task.

The exhibition itself is not large and can easily be walked through in around an hour or so. The objects and sections were paced at just the right rhythm throughout the galleries. The design is also fairly straightforward, placing the greatest emphasis on the photographs and using graphics sparsely yet tastefully.

Tasteful exhibit design

Image by Renee Alfonso

Each photograph was printed large-scale and gave off a very regal and impressive aura. The galleries were darkened with the chosen wall color, with little ambient light. A spotlight shaped to each portrait provided the illumination for the objects. The overall aura was very much like a dark room but somehow also gave off a sense of theatricality, which was very much in line with the taste of Empress Cixi.

Unlike most fine arts exhibitions, Power Play did away with individual object labels and instead opted for an overarching panel that provided an overview of the exhibition sections and also pointed out details in certain objects. This was an effective technique in my opinion as it allowed visitors to take more time to really spend time looking at the photographs and not feel obligated to read every label on the walls.

Empress Cixi's Seal

Image courtesy Freer Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution

The only graphics present in the exhibition were the section panels with the descriptions, and a large, loose wall hanging outside the exhibition exit that acted as a screen from the multimedia theater at the end of the exhibit. There was a very minimalist approach to the design, with the only semblance of ornamentation in the graphics being the seal of the empress imprinted on the graphic panels and exit screen. This I feel went well with the presentation of the photographs, and gave a very impressive, strong, and distinct presence.

Power Play is a great example of an exhibition with simple objects and a minimalist presentation technique that could have a potentially large impact on the stories surrounding a familiar historical figure. I know that my personal perception of the last empress was illuminated in some way. Hopefully more exhibitions like this can open avenues for discussion and stimulate interest in viewing history as a continuously changing part of the human experience.

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