TAASA members visiting the inaugural exhibition, image by Margaret White
China Gallery with scholar’s desk and accoutrements, image by Margaret White

Sydney’s newest museum, within the grounds of the University of Sydney, opened in November 2020 as an educational and research facility that is free for the public to enjoy. The four-storey, cantilevered concrete building sits into a gentle hillside framed by magnificent old trees and is named after the lead donor, the Chinese -Australian businessman and philanthropist, Chau Chak Wing.

This museum brings together the main collections from the Nicholson, Macleay and the University’s Art Collection covering varied subjects such as antiquities, science and natural history allowing for many more precious and rarely seen objects (some 450,000) to be displayed together for the first time in 20 years.

Now, the museum’s objects are intentionally placed in new contexts with the aim of posing challenging questions to the viewer. The Director, David Ellis, makes his passion for this multi -disciplinary approach clear. He notes that the collections can now ‘speak’ to one another; ‘It’s not just art history students looking at artworks, or archaeologists looking at pot sherds-it’s mixing of all of those.’

The material culture of the Asian region is represented across the collections in a wide diversity of forms and periods including archaeological remains from West Asia, historic Chinese ceramics and bronzes, traditional Southeast Asian artefacts and Japanese and Chinese photography and prints.

One gallery is dedicated to displaying and studying the arts and culture of China. Its inaugural exhibition, ‘Auspicious Motifs in Chinese Art,’ explores how such symbols have long inspired and permeated the arts of China’s daily life, prosperity and virtue. The collaborative exhibition comprises 60 objects from the University Art Collection, the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Museum of Applied Sciences and the Arts. Curator, Shuxia Chen, has chosen four themes: Guardians of Space, On the Scholar’s Desk, Into Life, Gods, Sages and Immortals. Each section showcases objects according to their functionality and meaning but also considers their social background of those who collected and used them.

Under the section ‘Guardians of Space’, I was drawn to a sancai-glazed Qing roof figure of an ‘official on a galloping horse’. Mythical animal or human figures were decorative symbols of power adorning sloping roof ridges on imperial Chinese architecture, for example, the Summer Palace or Forbidden Palace in Beijing. They formed an outward marching procession finishing with an imperial dragon representing the authority of the state. This figure symbolised a household’s desire to have a rapid official career success.

Roof tile, Figure of an official on a galloping horse, China, c.1900s QIng Dynasty (1644- 1911), courtesy of University Art Collection

I was also fascinated by two sets of colourful, hand -coloured, glass lantern slides for use in a ‘magic’ lantern. Such slides were precursors of photographic slides and these slides made by an Australian missionary, John Whitsed Dovey, living in Shanghai from 1916-26. Glass slides were mostly developed in the 17th c for entertainment but by the late 19th c, they were used for educational purposes such as these in the exhibition: ‘The good deeds of Confucius’ and the other, ‘The good deeds of Buddha Shakyamuni’ which were made to build awareness in Australia of Confucian and Buddhist ideals.

Hand painted glass lantern slide:The Good Deeds of Confucius, Shanghai, China, 1916-26, by John Whitsed Dovey

Contributed by Margaret White, TAASA Vice President and SEACS Lifetime member