Moving Museums, Shifting Identities by Vivien Chan
The V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green houses a huge variety of objects, not all of which are immediately thought to be for children. In the echoing hall that was once the ‘Brompton Boilers’, on the left hand side of the first floor, are two Qing Chinese sculptures displayed side by side. The models are thought to be made in the years 1780-1800 in Canton, now modern day Guangzhou. The label introduces them as ‘The Chinese Rock Gardens’, allegedly meant as a gift to the Empress Josephine from the Emperor Chia Ch’ing, or Jiaqing.
The model on the left depicts a river, formed from discs of carved, iridescent mother of pearl. On the water, ladies row boats with their families inside, dappled in light by the ivory cover overhead. The model on the right mirrors its partner, illustrating a parade scene, tiny ivory people marching banners, lanterns and flags over a carved bridge. Missing from the display is their sister model, The Model of a Daoist Temple, on long-term loan to the Sunderland Museum and Winter Garden.
The history of these three models remains relatively unknown. Where they were made, how, and by whom, as well as how they came to be in Europe, continues to be a mystery. However, their local history is extremely revealing of their use and abuse as museum objects. Their transitions from museum to museum showed the ways that these institutions used the models to display their power, knowledge, and ‘understanding’ of the ‘other’; and in their final resting place at the Museum of Childhood, how the exotic becomes an object of agency through the eyes of their audience, an object that has the ability to create its own stories.
The Paradises first location was at the infamous India Museum. The almost mythical India Museum and Library opened within the new East India House on Leadenhall Street in London in 1801. The Museum housed much of the ‘loot’ that the East India Company ships brought back from their journey, but also goods and materials that the Company merchants dealt with, such as spices, textiles and tea. The Library was a key educational facility, holding many Oriental books and manuscripts. Inside the India Museum, The Paradises held the spotlight in the Library, around which scholars would work and scorn the tourists toying with Tipu’s Tiger.
The India Museum dissolved in 1879, dispersing their collection all across the nation. The India Museum was already housed in rented gallery space in the South Kensington Museum, called the India Section. In 1881, The Paradises ‘were found by the special assistant … without labels or directions of any kind on them, and so clotted with filth that it was impossible to tell their value’ . The Paradises were moved the Eastern Galleries, which contained the Indian Section and the Saracenic, Persian, Chinese and Japanese Section. Here, The Paradises became a part of the educational agenda of the South Kensington school, suddenly becoming active again after years in storage and clearly in disrepair.
The Paradises were moved from the India Section to the Bethnal Green Museum in 1930. When in 1970 the Far Eastern Department was formed and many Chinese objects were finally transferred to the same department, The Paradises stayed at Bethnal Green. This was partially because they were not greatly important to the Far Eastern Department, but also they had become exceedingly popular at Bethnal Green Museum . The Bethnal Green Museum was renamed the Museum of Childhood in 1974, after several years of specifically collecting children’s toys, games, clothes and other objects. The Paradises continued to be a part of the Museum of Childhood, displayed in the 1980s as part of a case of ‘Ethnic Toys and Dolls’. In 1984, the model of a Daoist Temple was transferred to the Far Eastern department, where it was displayed alone in the V&A’s gallery of Chinese export porcelain, before being permanently loaned to the Sunderland Museum and Winter Garden.
The Paradises have never quite ‘belonged’ in each of the locations and departments it has been assigned to. The identities of The Paradises totally changed between museums: from exotic trophies, to precious ethnic representations, to trashy imitations and finally, to splendid storytellers, the reframing of the three models dramatically altered their purpose within the museum, and how museums have exerted their agendas onto these objects. Even though they are far from toys, in the context of the Museum of Childhood they are allowed be what they are; models full of life, narratives, and adventures to be explored.