Museum Secrets

Broken And Beautiful

January 06, 2021 Ashmolean Museum / Lucie Dawkins / Clare Pollard / Daniel Bone Season 1 Episode 8
Museum Secrets
Broken And Beautiful
Show Notes Transcript

Clare Pollard, Curator of Japanese Art, introduces us to a beautifully broken Japanese plate, and Head of Conservation, Daniel Bone, takes us inside the conservation labs and tells us about the art of caring for the beautiful and the broken objects in the collection.

Japanese Plate – View it here

Conservation at the Ashmolean – Read more

If you want to take a closer look at the plate Clare talks about in this episode, you can view it at the link above, or visit the podcast page on the Ashmolean website:

Producer: Lucie Dawkins
Presenters: Lucie Dawkins, Clare Pollard and Daniel Bone

About Museum Secrets: The curators at the University of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology have been recording bite-sized tales of the wonderful, and sometimes unexpected, life of a museum. We can’t wait to share them with you! Join us every weekday for 3 weeks, from 28 December onwards, for a daily dose of cheer.

Lucie: This is Museum Secrets from the Ashmolean. 

I’m your host, Lucie Dawkins, and every day I’ll be bringing you a bitesized undercover story from our collections. Step in through the front doors, and join me for some joyful, wonderful, and sometimes bizarre tales hidden in the objects. We will be going behind the scenes and beyond the labels, into dark corners of the storerooms and into the minds of the curators.

Today we are taking a walk downstairs, to Gallery 3. It’s a room filled with objects that all have one thing in common - they have been repaired, adapted, or up-cycled by people in the past. They are the work of many hands - their makers, but also the people that chose to try and fix them rather than throw them away. Amongst them is a very simple, but very special, plate. Here’s curator Clare Pollard to tell us more.

Clare: This little porcelain plate is one of my favourite objects in the Ashmolean’s Japanese collection. It’s on permanent display in the ‘Restoring the Past’ gallery on the lower ground floor of the museum, so you can come and see it any time. It’s only 14cm across but there’s so much going on – a whole story of light and regeneration unfolding across its surface.

On the top half of the plate you can see a full moon shining in a dark, midnight blue sky, lighting up a desolate brown plain below. I love how the maker has cleverly left the circle of the moon untouched by coloured glaze, allowing the glowing white of the porcelain – the body of the plate itself - to shine through the blue glaze around it. Such a simple, effective way of expressing light!

The brown represents an actual place, the Musashi Plain. Nowadays it’s a densely populated suburb of Western Tokyo, but in the past it was a wild and remote moor, somewhere that was often mentioned in Japanese poetry to represent everything that was lonely and desolate, a place that was full of mournfully crying birds and windswept autumn grasses. If I read you one of these melancholy, autumnal poems you might get a sense of the mood that was evoked by the place (this was written by a court noble at the beginning of the thirteenth century): 

At our journey's end / the sky is one with Musashi Plain
From among the fields of grass / emerges moonlight

Japanese poets and artists have always looked for beauty in the melancholy, the imperfect and the impermanent, and I think the image of a radiant autumn moon over the desolate plain on this dish encapsulates this attitude perfectly. I love the notion that you can find something sad and beautiful at the same time – that it’s OK to acknowledge the dark side of things, but that that doesn’t have to cancel out the good completely. In fact, an element of sadness, an awareness of impermanence, can actually make something more beautiful, as it makes you appreciate it all the more in the moment. I love that this little plate can communicate that idea to us all the way across the 4-odd centuries since it was made. 

Another thing I love about this dish is the gold repair on the bottom edge of the plate. The way the rim has been broken and then very carefully repaired with gleaming gold lacquer so that it kind of floats at the bottom of the plate, almost like a moon shadow. If you look closely you can see that the gold lacquer has been decorated with a beautiful, intricate pattern of tiny gold waves. This type of repair is called kintsugi in Japanese, which literally means ‘joining together with gold’. In a second sense, the golden join also links past and present, connecting the time we’re looking at the plate now with the precise moment in history when that object was damaged. 

So, at some time in the past, at some point since it was made in southwestern Japan almost 400 years ago, this plate has been broken – perhaps it was dropped, or something fell onto it – but the owner, instead of throwing it away or trying to hide the damage, has instead chosen to celebrate that traumatic moment in the plate’s history. It makes you think this must have been a really treasured object. 

By lovingly repairing it with kintsugi, the owner has brought it back to a state of wholeness, but a wholeness that’s quite different from the original vision of the potter who made it in the first place. So the mend can be seen as a kind of creative addition to the plate’s ‘life story’, as it were – a beautiful mark of age, something that symbolises hope and recovery. Arguably, the traces of shining gold make this piece more beautiful and more precious than it was before. I find that really comforting.

Lucie: Listening to Clare’s story  reminds me that all the objects in the museum are only here because of a history of human hands who have cared for them, just like the person who fixed this broken plate. In facts there is a team in the Ashmolean who focussed on protecting objects so that they survive the ages. They are the conservators, who you will find in a lab hidden in the heart of the museum.  They know better than most how beautiful broken things can be. Here’s Daniel Bone, the Head of Conservation. 

Daniel: The Ashmolean holds a million objects in its collections.  It’s a little hard to measure in fact, do you separately count parts of a single object, the beads on a necklace, the sherds of a broken pot?  but a million is the figure that we have. It is a vast number and yet,  just as a million inhabitants of a big city have individual needs and stories and histories, so do the collections in a museum. 

Conservators are in a privileged position. Our primary role is for the preservation of the collections, we are trained to examine and handle objects, to assess them and to treat them if absolutely necessary, to make them fit for display, for travel and study, and just like in preventive medicine, we try to  minimise the risks of damage  in the future. 

But perhaps our greatest  privilege is to get close to a museum object, and  examine it in detail, often under the microscope, to discover the beauty in small things. 

It is here, by looking closely,  that the objects can reveal their past. Minute traces  of 2000 year old insects in the corrosion products of a cooking pot from the site of Pompeii, a miracle of preservation; gentle indentations, lines scratched into a sheet of paper invisible on first sight,  made by the hand of Raphael as he sketched out his drawing; or  minute traces of gold on a carved  ivory inlay  from Iraq, suggesting it was once brightly gilded  2 and a half  thousand years ago. As a conservator I can hold the object as the maker did , sometimes we can even find  a finger print or impression from when a hand hundreds or even thousands of years ago handled or sculpted clay.

We sometimes see attempts from those in the past, who, like us, are trying to make something last a little longer. Holes drilled in sherds of a broken jar to be stitched or riveted together. A broken metal cooking pot patched again and again. 

Reuse, reduce, recycle and repair – these have a long history that we shouldn’t forget.  

 We also come across traces from the last century of those who tried to preserve objects, in ways that have  caused problems for us today as they age. Adhesives that discolour, or are irreversible,  and even pull away the surfaces they were meant to join. Each person works in the context of their times, we don’t condemn their work, we do, now,  the best we can for the objects before us and for the future. 

And the process of some conservation work can itself be a thing of beauty, making an object fit for display can involve a strong element of aesthetic skill, filling gaps in a large ceramic, or retouching lost areas of paint. Not to deceive - our work is not hidden -  but to balance in an artful way the overall impression to the viewer. 

Finally, the act of conserving an object can also be a mindful one. By centring and concentrating on a process, such as carefully cleaning a piece of sculpture, you can enter a world of focussed attention that dispels other thoughts. Something that can benefit us all during difficult times.

Lucie: If you enjoyed today’s episode about the beauty to be found in imperfect things, then join us tomorrow for a story about another item in the ‘Restoring the Past’ gallery… a real statement dress. To take a closer look at the kintsugi plate in today’s story, follow the link in the podcast notes. And if you enjoyed the episode, please remember to rate, review and share the podcast, so that other listeners can find us.