As the Royal Institution of Cornwall marks its 200th anniversary this month, a group of volunteers called Citizen Curators have been investigating how the museum’s collections reveal Cornwall and China’s historical links.
The Royal Institution of Cornwall cares for over 350 artefacts originating from China. They range from exquisite ceramics to geological specimens and photographs as well as objects that relate to China’s social history.
Tom Coia, a Citizen Curator from Redruth, said, “We found many connections between the Duchy and China through science, industry and ceramic art, particularly related to China Clay from mid-Cornwall.”
Methodist mission to Yunnan
The group found a surprising hidden story in the collection of a Methodist Missionary called Reverend Burton Wright whose collection of Chinese artefacts were donated to the institution in 2010 by the Cornish Methodist Historical Association.
Reverend Wright was sent to Yunnan province in south-west China in 1941, at a particularly dangerous time during the Second World War when Japanese forces had just invaded. Wright collected artefacts during his time as a missionary in China and returned to the UK with them. He served in Falmouth from 1977 to 1995.
Wright followed in the footsteps of Cornishman Samuel Pollard (1864-1915) who was an influential figure in Yunnan. He helped develop a script of the language spoken by the Miao peoples of the province, which is still used today.
“We chose to share what we found out about these objects because few people know that Cornish Methodism has had an influence on Chinese communities who converted to Christianity, and also that a Cornish appreciation for Chinese culture has found its way into our collections” said John Sykes who was leading on the historical research.
A new display of Chinese objects from Rev Wright’s collection has been curated by the group is part of the RIC200 exhibition called World Wide Wonders which explores the museum’s world cultures collections with new eyes.
Siân Powell and Vic Hurry, working on the silk objects said, “Thanks to our conversations with experts in conservation, Methodist history and Chinese culture we were able to translate a beautiful poem embroidered onto a silk fan case and realise that a pair of tiny silk shoes for bound feet were probably souvenirs rather than worn.”
Like Cornwall, Yunnan province, where most of these artefacts were collected, is also known for tin production and there are other connections the RIC would like to find.
“Chinese families have called Cornwall their home for many generations since the 19th century but we know very little about Chinese heritage in Cornwall and we want to find out more” added Matt Cahill, Citizen Curator from Truro.
Programme leader, Dr. Tehmina Goskar and the Citizen Curators group have made a plea to encourage more museums and historical societies to record this heritage.
She says, “The Citizen Curators have done a brilliant job starting to shine a light on this important part of our shared past but what other stories do our collections tell us about the impact of Cornish people working abroad?”
Celebrate Chinese New Year
On Friday 16th Feb, from 12 to 3.30pm, the Citizen Curators are inviting people to Royal Cornwall Museum River Street, Truro, to celebrate the coming of the Year of the Dog with a special opportunity to get up close to Chinese artefacts not usually on display such as There will also be a chance to decorate and take away a celebratory traditional Chinese lantern (not for burning).
All are welcome. Free with admission ticket: Under 16’s go FREE. Adults: £5.50 for a day pass. For more information visit: http://www.royalcornwallmuseum.org.uk/visiting-us.
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