Museums such as the Field face significant challenges in their efforts to liven up old collections while accounting for significant developments in historical and anthropological scholarship. The 9,000 square feet of exhibition space in the newly opened Cyrus Tang Hall of China is entertaining enough to captivate visitors of all ages, but it can only provide a cursory introduction to 5,000 years of Chinese civilization, though a much more serious and informative story about earth and its creatures might be told online, where there is infinite space for interactive audios, visuals and texts.
The objects are much more dramatically lit now, enhancing their aesthetic qualities, but the thrill of discovering an amazing sculpture secreted away in the back of a dusty, old display case is gone. These unintended pleasures have been replaced by cultural meta-narratives of religious and dynastic history that may be too simplistic for young minds who are actively curious. The panoramic videos of Chinese topography, flora and fauna seem especially superficial on a second viewing.
But the Field Museum’s collection of sculptural objects is always worth a visit, and this chronological exhibit seems to provoke many important questions. Why do the bronze cauldrons of the Shang and Zhou Dynasties feel so resolute and powerful? Why do bronze objects from the Qin Dynasty seem so cold and a bit creepy? Why are the tomb figurines from the Tang Dynasty so fresh and lively? In its acceptance, if not pursuit, of diversity, that era (618-907 CE) seems closest to us, though we are so used to art as the expression of defiant individuals that it is hard to imagine so much creative talent serving a more collective vision. In that case, perhaps the Field’s collection really does benefit from the historical context into which it has now been placed. The exhibition ends with two specially commissioned re-creations. The spirit stone garden fails as a meditative environment, but a videotaped shadow puppet performance of a classic Chinese folk tale is more beautiful, thrilling and hilarious than animation could ever be. Don’t miss this. (Chris Miller)
Ongoing at the Field Museum, 1400 South Lake Shore.