REVIEW: ‘Ming: 50 Years that changed China’

Being an avid art buff, I regularly visit new exhibitions on in London. This is the first time I’ve decided to review one of them. Recently, I visited the British Museum to see ‘Ming: 50 Years that changed China’, and I have to say, it was a spectacular show. Like any review, I’ll start with the good, and end with the bad.

Set deep within the Museum itself, the Ming exhibit encompasses the Sainsbury exhibition floor. Truly I have never seen an exhibit like it before. First of all, Ming focuses on the treasures of 6 emperors, their roles and impact within Chinese society. For the most part, the conglomeration of exquisite artefacts is awe-inspiring, and credit to the British museum for bringing in so many treasures from other collections all at once. I can imagine they begged for some. There was a huge range, from daintily crafted hairpieces and jewellery, to enamel vases and guilded pots, silk robes, fine expressions of painting style from the period, furniture, statues, religious icons, the lot. I felt as if I had walked into another time. The literary sources and their translations were also engaging, from books of Confucius to jotted ramblings by the emperors themselves. Truly, I couldn’t fault the collection amassed before me. The set was beautifully arranged throughout 6 rooms also, whoever designed the set ensured you wound round the ornaments, twisting through each room so as to not spoil the view of what was to come.

Cloisonné Jar, Ming Dynasty, 1426-1435

Cloisonné Jar, Ming Dynasty, 1426-1435

Moreover, the timed ticket entry meant that no one was fighting to see specific artefacts and there was plenty of room, a refreshing break compared to the pushing and queuing to see other pieces in the museum. Overall, I’d say I was quite impressed. A very solid 7.5 out of 10.

However, despite the fact that I was there to learn about and enjoy these treasures, I hate to say it, but the clincher of this exhibit for me was the gift shop.

WHAT?

The gift shop?! I hear you cry. Yes. The gift shop. It was clear that the British Museum meant business with this exhibit, and it was not aimed at anyone low-rent. Normally, one is used to the cheesy, over-priced tat of museum shops, but not here. Everything was either hand-crafted or painfully clever. I wanted to buy it all, from four thousand dollar lacquer and enamel pens to framed silk print scarves. Truly, these trinkets were as resplendent as the real treasures in the exhibit.

But back to the exhibit itself. Like any good museum, audio guides were available, and judging from the amount of people using them, apparently they were worthwhile. (Unfortunately, I don’t go in for that kind of thing.) Also, there was a well produced guide to the collection full of lots of history as well as pictures, however this was in the form of an overpriced coffee book instead of a handheld copy, which was only available at the end of the exhibit.

But, true to life, every exhibit has it’s downsides.

I found that despite the beauty of the artefacts, they needed to be kept in low light, which meant that the dramatic effect of the exhibit came from the fact that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my own face. The spotlights were very harsh in places and soon my eyes were hurting. Luckily, in places there were benches to sit. The history of the exhibit itself was comprehensive, however too much so. I am a smart girl, and frankly I felt belittled in places at how dumbed-down the prose accompanying the exhibits was. It was very ‘GCSE revision guide’ instead of ‘have a faceful of amazing rememberable facts’. Was the exhibit designed to let the heirlooms speak for themselves? No. The content definitely needs revising.

This is of particular importance as there was very little media used to diversify the exhibition, despite the plethora of it’s contents. There were only one or two screens playing silent, thirty second videos on repeat. It was poor. That being said, the ticket prices are very much over-priced for the amount that one sees. I expected it to be at least half an hour longer, as we finished it in one hour fifteen, even doubling back to repeat some parts. I would have thought that if one was expected to spend exponentially in the gift shop anyway, that the tickets would have been cheaper. This problem was lessened slightly by the fact that there are some concession prices for students and OAPs etc.

So despite the fact that any standard guests’ bank account would be severely crippled by the time that the Ming exhibit is done with you, the nature, value and quality of the treasures themselves is worth seeing, even if you care little for the history of the era (1450’s). This exhibit is designed to blow your socks off. However, in reality, I’d say it gave an underwhelming gust.

A redeeming factor is the brilliant page that is set up on the British Museum’s website. It covers some highlights, gives some other reviews and also has it’s own blog. I recommend thoroughly browsing that before deciding to go.

If by some miracle this review has convinced you to see the treasures for yourself, you’d better hurry as it ends on the 5th of January 2015.

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