Well where else would you go on Buddha’s Birthday? Ok so it turns out that this was just a lucky coincidence of my Durham Oriental Museum visit. From the outside you wouldn’t guess the wonders that this museum holds. It does not have the traditional grandeur of neoclassical architecture associated with many UK museums, but it does contain spectacular examples of items from across the Eastern world.
The museum must be quite a difficult space to work with; it has multiple different levels with a balcony area around the outside that looks out over the lower galleries. This has the effect of making what would ordinarily be small gallery spaces feel larger, but also means that there is not much control over sound travelling through the galleries.
This is a university museum, the collection is still used for research as well as display. Possibly as a result of this there is a lot of information on text panels. In the Thacker Gallery of Ancient Egypt there are text panels with basic information on, but more detailed information can be found in handy booklets attached to each case. This has the effect of having a pleasing appearance to a causal visitor, preventing them from being scared off by walls of textual information, but at the same time a researcher could find more detailed information if they wanted. It was also nice to see that in a recent refurbishment the Egyptian Boxwood servant girl cosmetics jar has been given a more central circular case. This object is a really important example of the Ancient Egyptians breaking with their traditional art traditions, instead showing the figure in a natural pose.
I enjoyed the case of contemporary collected objects from Korea, it was nice to have this as a contrast alongside other Korean objects. In fact there were a few examples that the museum is still taking in contemporary collections and displays modern art from around the world around the edge of its upper gallery. This has the effect of keeping the museum feeling fresh, the collection is not stagnant and modern items are appreciated as important and enhance the older objects rather than working against them.
I love the fabric chosen for the cases in the central gallery that covers areas including Tibet, Burma and India. Shocking yellow, rich turquoise and pink are definitely not traditional museum fabric choices, but they work. Rather than distracting from the objects of display they add to contrast with the colours within the objects and act as an eye-catching backdrop.
In the lowest gallery there is a timeline of Chinese ceramics. It is a really visual way for a non-specialist to see the changes in techniques over time, as well as giving a specialist exquisite examples to look at. One of the most hypnotic aspects of this gallery is a film that follows the creation of Chinese ceramics using traditional techniques. It’s amazing to see the skill, time and effort that it takes to create these beautiful objects.