The object list

Both the V&A and the Palace Museum agreed that the exhibition should be on costumes and accessories. My first task as the exhibition curator was to draw up an object list. How did I set about doing that?

As mentioned previously the Palace Museum is a historic site. The numerous palaces and halls were built for the emperors to live in, not for the display of artefacts. The robes are not on permanent display. Fortunately the Palace Museum has published two excellent books – one on their dress collection and one on their fabrics collection. They also mounted a special display of Qing dynasty costumes in their own galleries in 2008, as part of the Olympics celebrations. From these three publications I was able to compile a ‘wish list’.

                    Imperial robes on show in the Palace Museum in 2008

                    Imperial robes on show in the Palace Museum in 2008

I called it a ‘wish list’ because a grading system is in use all over China. A museum object is given a first, second or third grading according to its artistic and historic significance. There is a cap on the number of first-grade objects that can be lent to any single exhibition outside China. Doubtlessly the robes once worn by emperors and empresses would be deemed of great historic significance – and I wanted a hundred of them!

I decided to go to Beijing. No sooner had I made the necessary arrangements with the Palace Museum and booked my air ticket in April then the volcanic ash grounded all flights in and out of the UK. On 22nd April, the day I was due to fly, the plane miraculously took off, with only a 30 minutes delay!

This time my appointment was at the East Gate, which I had no problem in finding. I was met by Dora Yuan of the Foreign Affairs Department. Dora had worked in the Chinese Embassy in London before returning to Beijing so she knows London well. Later I met curators from the Textile Department, some for the first time, some I have known on previous occasions. I noticed all the curators moved around the palace complex on their bicycles. However their visitor from London could not ride a bicycle so they walked with me, pushing their bikes along.

For the next two days we went through the wish list. Item xxx is highly unlikely to be allowed to travel, said one curator. Item yyy is already earmarked for another event, said another curator. Substitutes were suggested as back-ups, just in case some items cannot be lent, for whatever reasons. The object list had to be approved first by the Director of the Palace Museum, then by State Administration of Cultural Heritage. If the State Administration refused some of the requested items we wanted to be able to submit an alternative list without delay. Time was crucial. There was not a moment to lose.