Tullia Fraser (University of Glasgow/National Museums Scotland):
Booked and Busy –
Syncretic Methodologies Towards Provenance Research into East Asian Objects
Tuesday, 6 June 2023, 16:00 – 17:30
Victoria & Albert Museum
Seminar Room 1
Cromwell Road, London, SW7 2SL
In the shifting international order of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the United Kingdom saw a surge in the presence of East Asian material culture. Acquired through myriad means ranging from trade to military conquest, this growth was subsequently reflected in amassing of museum collections across the country during this time, typically through purchasing, gifting, bequests, or transfers from other institutions.
Provenance research serves to provide insight into these objects’ biographies and itineraries, exposing in the process, networks of imperialism, trade and collecting that had grown exponentially complex since the nineteenth century. This in turn bears implications for understanding many other objects held in museum collections globally.
My paper details the findings of a 3-month provenance research project into the V&A’s East Asia Collection—complex objects, individuals and stories which were revealed using a syncretic methodology. Combining quantitative and qualitative research approaches, the acquisition information pertaining to over 43,000 East Asian objects digitized in this project was used as an analytical base to inform targeted biographical research into individual objects and their vendors to the V&A.
These findings are then situated in a wider context of ongoing PhD research into the collecting of Chinese material culture in Scotland, to demonstrate historical complexities and research overlaps that inevitably exist. While joining the growing call for data-driven methodologies in researching the histories of collections, I also critically reflect on the potentials and pitfalls of this syncretic methodology, with practical consideration for the growing scope of duties that museum practitioners are expected to undertake.
Provenance research is an important and mammoth undertaking, engaging researchers both under and beyond the official employ of museums, as well as many interested and invested members of the public. Taking the intersectional perspective of an early-career PhD researcher affiliated with museums internationally, I conclude by questioning the role of museums in engaging ongoing provenance research, particularly that undertaken by individuals operating beyond these museums’ official employ.
Tullia Fraser is a second-year PhD researcher based in the University of Glasgow and National Museums Scotland. Her project focuses on the Scottish collecting and interpretations of Chinese material culture in the early twentieth century. She gained both a BA in Archaeology and MA in Museum and Artefact Studies from Durham University; and previously held roles at Liang Yi Museum and the University Museum and Art Gallery at the University of Hong Kong. In 2022, she completed a Doctoral Training Placement, provenance research project at the Victoria & Albert Museum, focussing on the V&A’s acquisition of East Asian objects from minor dealers between 1852-1911.