It is the time of year when China puts on its best face, the days leading up Spring Festival sees truck loads of potted plants arranged in floral motifs, buildings given a spruce and this year large paper cuts of goats or sheep erected at shopping malls. - goat or sheep is up to you, as both are “yang” in this country, a goat is simply mountain sheep or “shan yang”, just like all hills, hillocks or massive monoliths are mountains or “shan”.
So I took a much overdue trip to the Ningbo Museum. It is a peculiar building of enticing angles and masonry, blending old red clay bricks, others of ashen and charcoal grey, with terra-cotta roofing tiles, all set in in the same precipitous walls.
Opened in 2008, it stands out against the surrounding off the shelf, high-rise backdrop through its unique design and freshness sustained through the quality of its build. Its style is said to be “New Vernacular” and only having modest understanding of architectural history I will take their word for it. What I really liked about approaching this building is the way it messes with angles and uniformity. I also like the blend of different colours slotted into the walls and the irregular window arrangement. What I struggled with was the capping of concrete, that at first glance suggested the running out of the old masonry materials, but upon further reflection actually added to both its perspective depth by making the concrete appear slightly more distant and the historical tension between what is today, China's favoured building material, resting uncomfortably upon the materials of its endangered traditional architecture.
Inside the space works well and retains the mood and style of its exterior throughout the three floors and roof space. There were no queues, or rather crowds, which I expect will not be case come the holiday period and the spacious lobby was cool and airy. The usual signs of museum convention were posted discreetly around the space, - no eating or drinking in the galleries - please be quiet, and a surprising “no sand shoes” although it may have been aimed at a specific anti fashion, indestructible brand of footwear. All signs were or course unheeded.
The ground floor featured a well crafted exhibition dedicated to the Khitan Empire or Liao Dynasty of northern China and Mongolia, roughly 907 to 1120. Entry to the this gallery was through a mock yurt, and displays included fine metal work, with intricate detail, finely decorated horse livery, mostly with jade carving and more to my own interest a great range of domestic and ceremonial ceramic work, including possible tomb offerings in the form human and camel figures, a massive dragon head, a curious part female part fish figure, religious figurines, a range of vessels, one of which was finished in a deep green glaze and a cup of a glass like material, possibly amber or some form of yellow jade.
Like many museums in China English language information is not always available and this exhibition was one. I have tried to include the Chinese tags to most works, for anyone that understands, Mandarin script, and will seek interpretation myself.
The galleries on the second floor were dedicated to local history and culture and it became apparent that it is very much a regional museum and a reasonably good one too. Here also in these more permanent exhibitions, some much appreciated English language tags.
Spread over two interconnecting galleries is the history of the region, from the Neolithic Hemudu civilisation, through to recent mercantile history and curious claim of Ningbo’s influence on world trade. The exhibition begins with and is punctuated by a number of somewhat outmoded diorama displays depicting a Hemudu neolithic village, complete with rice fields, and domesticated pigs and pet dogs. Another represents a the busy port around the time of the Nanjing Treaty that ceded the port of Ningbo as one of many British concessions. Between these tacky displays with their life like wax figures, are excellent cabinets of ceramic artifacts, from the charcoal pots of the neolithic age, with their barely discernible leaf and rope impressions, through to Yue ware that is here classed as a type of porcelain, and celadon, but is really neither, rather pre porcelain and, judging from the examples here, more muddy almost Khaki than celadon. (Regina Krahl provides a nice survey of green wares from the region https://www.asia.si.edu/Shipwrecked/downloads/13Krahl.pdf) There are, however some very good works on display that make for an excellent insight into the ceramic development of region.
The second gallery on this floor becomes more theme parks and toward the exit makes the wonderfully outlandish claim of a gang of Ningbo business men running the world. But then my knowledge of mercantile history is almost non existent, and there is after all more than one version of history. The only thing I can really complain about from my visit, was that upon following the signs that said “Bar” to the top floor and out onto the roof space, it seems to have gone, vanished, but did reward the chase with a reminder of the unusual architectural style.