Welcome to our inaugural blog, posted at the launch of our online exhibition, ‘Nara to Norwich: Arts and Beliefs at the Ends of the Silk Roads.’
This blog will be used by all the project team members and other scholars working with us to post on project activities, recent research, and articles on research themes and exhibits. This first post explains the origins and the process of this online exhibition.
Our research project took form several years ago, well before COVID first showed its presence. It was conceived originally in 2016 and developed as a four year project, to be launched in 2020 with a major international exhibition planned at the end of that year to explore our ideas and raise questions which we hoped to address over the following years. The exhibition was to be held in the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England.
Although I have never been involved in film-making, I have curated several major exhibitions, and I imagine the preparation process to be similar in some ways to directing a film. A story is selected and refined, and then sold to potential funders. The ideal crew and cast are chosen, then changes as actors—or exhibits—prove to be too expensive, not available or not in a fit state—conservation might be required. Constant adjustments are made in the story and the cast to fit availability and funding. Compromises are made. Everything is finally agreed and contracts signed.
The analogy perhaps ends here. With a physical exhibition the location is usually known from the start and there is a short period of intense activity as the design is completed, and the exhibits arrive and take their chosen places, but nothing else is then required of them. Then the screening starts and the story takes on the interpretation of the individuals in the audience.
This was the plan. Although we managed a preliminary research visit to Korea and Japan in June 2019 (see images above), the events later in that year and into 2020 made it clear that the activity required to plan the exhibition: travelling to research and view exhibits; to negotiate their loan; to raise funds etc. would be impossible in the timescale. We therefore postponed it: first to 2021 and then 2022, before finally accepting that it was not possible within the project timescale. Given the amount of work that had already gone into the story and selections, we therefore decided to present the exhibition online.
The immediate advantages of an online exhibition are that it costs a lot less and that many more exhibits become available. So we revisited many of our original choices and also added exhibits such as buildings and landscapes; central to our story. But we have kept to the original narrative and to our limit of the number of exhibits—a story can become too long.
We launched on June 5, 2022, with five of our major stories, what would have formed physical sections in the gallery—Origins, Arrivals, Encounters, Living in Belief and Relics—comprising 88 exhibits. The remaining stories—Pilgrimage, Death and Burials, and a Coda—will be launched later. The main stories are supplemented with short, focussed discussions on particular topics. So far, we have the Pensive Bodhisattvas, Okinoshima, Stupas, and Books. More will follow. Some of these topics and others will be discussed in this blog and we also plan scholarly and educational activities which will explore further these topics and inevitably refine, if not change, some of our conclusions.
We hope you enjoy this virtual exhibition and welcome comments, questions and suggestions on what you would like to see explored further.
The project involves a growing team of international scholars and it has been a pleasure to work with them. All the initial ideas have been discussed in many meetings and workshops, and have been refined accordingly. We would like to thank everyone involved for their time and thoughts on this but we take responsibility for any mistakes or inconsistencies on the website.
Coming next: a report by Naomi Hughes-White on the project team’s research visit to Sweden in June 2022.