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Britain’s best places to see: Chinese and East Asian collections

If you’re interested in stunning craftsmanship, exquisite carving and masterful pottery, then Chinese and East Asian art and artefacts are for you. Here’s our pick of some of the best collections in the UK

The Museum of East Asian Art
Bath

Photograph of entrance to museum gallery showing Chinese ceramic vase in display case, next to an information board about Chinese lettering

Gallery 4 – current display ‘stunning craftsmanship’, photo by Gavin Elkins

Just metres from the historic Georgian townhouses of Bath’s Circus lies a collection dedicated to the arts and cultures of East and Southeast Asia – the only collection of its kind in the UK. The Museum of East Asian Art’s permanent collection consists of some 2,000 objects, mostly from China and East Asia, representing 7,000 years of art and craftsmanship.

The artefacts include a comprehensive jade collection, ceramics, carvings, metalware and lacquerware. The museum also highlights Bath’s historical relationship with China – the trade in tea and porcelain being an important aspect of 18th century Bath’s social life.

As well as the permanent collection, the museum hosts exhibitions of both contemporary and historic Asian art throughout the year.

 

British Museum
London

photograph of gallery showing figures, artefacts and costume from Asia

© The Trustees of the British Museum

The British Museum’s outstanding Asian collections cover a vast geographical and chronological range. The entire continent is represented in the Museum’s 75,000-strong collection, which includes a wealth of material from China and East Asia dating from prehistory to present

Highlights from the galleries include iconic blue and white Ming dynasty porcelain, calligraphy and silk. There’s also a gallery dedicated to ceramics, featuring 1,700 of the Museum’s finest examples – a discipline at which China is arguably the most advanced in the world.

The Chinese jade gallery showcases a stone prized by the Chinese as the most precious of all materials for its magical properties and beauty. Jade has been used in China for over 7,000 years for ceremonial and decorative items, and the British Museum’s collection comprises carved ornaments, weapons and ritual objects as well as contemporary jades.

read more: britain's best places to see

 

Oriental Museum
Durham

photograph of Chinese artefacts inside museum gallery, with a horse figure in the centre of the image

© Durham University

Set up to give an important cultural context to students studying Oriental languages at Durham University, the objects in the Oriental Museum are considered of national and international importance.

The museum’s Chinese collections number over 10,000 objects and is particularly strong in ceramics, with over 1,000 pieces covering all major dynasties and beautifully illustrating the development of the craft. The museum also has over 2,000 jade and hardstone carvings, showcasing the tremendous skill of Chinese carvers, with highlights including carved seals, dress accessories and vessels. Also on show are ceremonial and folk costumes, painting and calligraphy, and Chinese furniture.

The museum also has a diverse collection of Japanese objects, including arms and armour, textiles, woodblock prints and netsuke dating from the Muromachi period right up to the 21st century. The Korean artefacts consist of a varied collection of everyday and ceremonial objects, supplemented by contemporary Korean material, such as K-Pop ephemera.

Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art
Manchester

photograph of exterior of Chinese Contemporary Art Centre

CFCCA external, image courtesy of Arthur Siuksta

Located on the edge of Manchester’s bustling Chinatown, the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art explores contemporary Chinese culture through art being produced in the country today by Chinese artists.

The organisation was established in 1986 to offer a forum for the Chinese population to show their work and promote a positive image of the Chinese in Britain. It now strives to educate the public on Chinese arts and culture, and give an important voice to contemporary Chinese artists.

CFCCA works with emerging Chinese artists, making Chinese culture accessible to the people of Manchester, and encouraging mainstream engagement with Chinese art.

Compton Verney
Warwick

photograph of large bronze Chinese figures in a dark museum gallery

© Compton Verney

The Chinese galleries at Compton Verney have at their heart a collection of some of the finest Ancient Chinese bronzes found anywhere outside of China. These bronze ritual vessels were created to accompany the dead in the afterlife, following the belief that the dead needed sustenance, served in suitably opulent vessels. These stunning objects date from around 1700 BC to AD 200, and were created for different Chinese rulers.

The thematic galleries focus on and discuss the significance behind strong objects from the collection – including a variety of exquisitely decorated bronze mirrors, objects decorated with animal patterns and some magnificent horse figures – exploring their importance in Chinese culture.

 

Ashmolean
Oxford

photograph of exterior of classical-style museum building on sunny day

Entrance of the Ashmolean Museum © Tom Flemming (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology is home to a plethora of galleries focusing on eastern art and culture. Visitors can explore the history of China in the China to AD 800 and China from AD 800 galleries, and discover Japan in the Meiji and Edo periods in the Japanese galleries.

Highlights from the China galleries include artefacts relating to the importance of writing in Chinese society, featuring displays on the iconic art of Chinese calligraphy; many items from the museum’s collection of Chinese greenware ceramics, the largest found anywhere outside of China; displays on the cult of collecting, and collectible luxury and prestigious objects; and a collection of Buddhist sculptures.

In the Japan galleries, visitors will find ceramics and lacquerwork from the Meiji period, and porcelain, woodblock printing and netsuke from the Edo period. The Asmolean also boasts a gallery of Eastern Art paintings, and the only gallery in the UK dedicated specifically to Chinese paintings.

 

Pitt Rivers Museum
Oxford

photograph of interior of Victorian museum space

© Pitt Rivers Museum.

Staying in Oxford, the Pitt Rivers Museum is home to countless curiosities – a proper Victorian Museum stuffed from floor to ceiling with a terrific traditional vibe, including many small labels printed by the Museum’s first ever curator. Three floors of cases full to the brim explore the world’s cultures through thematic displays, based on what the object was used for, rather than where it came from.

Chinese and East Asian artefacts are scattered throughout the museum, which displays a large percentage of its 500,000+ collection at any one time. Chinese highlights include beautiful hair ornaments adorned with bright blue kingfisher feathers, carved ivory figures, and an important collection of 1,000 photographs of China from the fall of the Manchu dynasty. The museum also has a selection of Japanese Noh masks – used in classical musical drama, an incredible collection of 800 intricately-carved netsuke; and traditional Japanese arms and armour.

V&A
London

photograph of Chinese ceramics in museum gallery

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Comprising over 70,000 objects, the V&A’s Far Eastern collections contain a tremendous variety of objects from China, Korea and Japan. The V&A boasts one of the largest and most important collections of Chinese artworks outside of East Asia, around 18,000 of which are on display. Spanning several millennia, the collections date as far back as the Tang dynasty and beyond, and include lacquerwork, silk, porcelain and jade, with a particularly strong collection of applied arts.

The Korean gallery showcases the V&A’s comprehensive collection of art and artefacts from the fourth century to today, combining ceramics, embroidery, product design and fashion to highlight the cultural heritage and diversity of Korea. Star objects include lavish embroideries and rare art from North Korea.

The Japanese collection has grown since the gallery’s founding, and now amounts to one of the world’s most comprehensive, mostly covering the Edo and Meiji periods. The collection is particularly strong in prints, paintings, drawings and enamels.

 

Fitzwilliam Museum
Cambridge

photograph of pots and statue in a museum gallery

© The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum is home to a wonderfully diverse Asian art collection of exceptional quality. Highlights from the Chinese collections include intricately carved jade, imperial and export porcelain, snuff bottles made to contain powdered tobacco, ritual bronzes and Chinese fans both for domestic use and for export to Europe.

One of the stars in the Fitzwilliam’s Asian collections is what is considered to be the best group of Korean Koryo celadon pottery outside of Korea. This variety of ceramics was the standard pottery produced in Korea during the Goryeo dynasty, and has a beautiful, distinctive, pale green hue.

The delights from Japan include hundreds of carved netsuke, Japanese sword fittings and blades and a splendid collection of Kakiemon porcelain – the best anywhere in the UK.

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