BP and the British Museum

The British Museum hosted a landmark exhibition that examined one of China’s most significant dynasties. Ming: 50 years that changed China ran from 18 September 2014 to 5 January 2015, and was supported by BP

BP is the British Museum’s longest-standing partner, having supported the museum’s exhibitions and programmes since 1996. Over the past eighteen years, BP’s support has enabled over one million visitors to experience various world civilizations, from Ancient Egypt to the Vikings and now Ming China. BP has operated in China since 1973 to date we’re one of the largest foreign energy investors in the country with nearly $5 billion of cumulative commercial investment. BP China’s work here is varied and wide. Its business activities include chemical joint ventures, aviation fuel supply, oil product and lubricant retailing and the sales of chemicals technologies.

The BP exhibition Ming: 50 Years that Changed China introduces British audiences to a hitherto little-explored period of Chinese history. This exhibition focuses on a fifty-year period, between 1400 and 1450, when China was transformed. While in Europe the Renaissance was just getting started, in China, the Ming dynasty was fast growing into a strong and sophisticated global power. This show offers an unprecedented opportunity for thousands of visitors to come face-to-face with some of the finest objects created during the Ming period. These artefacts have been borrowed from collections around the world, enabling visitors to admire the very best examples of Ming craftsmanship.

The curators spent five years developing the show, initially meeting with museums in Britain, America and China, and tackling the difficult task of making their selection. ‘Objects had to fight for their place in the exhibition’, says Harrison-Hall. ‘Each one carries a part of the narrative’. 

Cloisonné jar, decorated with dragons and imperial mark

Cloisonné jar, decorated with dragons and imperial mark. China, Ming dynasty, Xuande mark and period, 1426–1435.
© The Trustees of the British Museum.

The process involved extensive travel: ‘We visited many more than the ten museums we are now working with. I climbed to the top of Wudang Mountain and descended into the tombs of a Ming emperor and a Ming prince. Craig Clunas (co-curator of the exhibition) went to the excavation site of Prince Zhuang of Lian and discovered what these princes meant for people in China today’. Then followed an extended negotiation process, with support from both the Chinese and British governments.

The final, outstanding selection includes exhibits from ten Chinese museums as well as exhibits from major collections in Europe, America and Korea., In many cases, this is the first time that the objects from the Chinese museums have left their provinces, let alone China. Among the highlights is the world’s first encyclopaedia, one of the earliest depictions of a football game, and supreme examples of Ming art objects: exquisite cloisonné vases, carved red lacquer boxes, items crafted from jade, delicately painted scrolls and the best examples of Ming porcelain. The porcelain produced during this period, known for its blue and white patterns, ranks among the finest of all Chinese ceramics.

Transporting such fragile objects requires utmost care, as Harrison-Hall explains: ‘Each object is packed to museum standard in conservation-grade packing materials, and handled with due care and diligence along its journey to prevent pressure, fractures and damage. All fine art vehicles are climate controlled, and come with air-ride suspension to ensure smoothness’.

Porcelain stem cup with dragon design.

Porcelain stem cup with dragon design. Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, China, Ming dynasty, Yongle period, 1403–1424.
© The Trustees of the British Museum.

On arrival in London, the objects take their place in the new Sainsbury exhibitions gallery; this is only the second show to take place here, after the successful Vikings exhibition, also supported by BP. With glorious colours to set the exhibits off and contextual images to illustrate their history, the installation skilfully evokes the original context of these objects.

Ming means ‘brightness’, and during this brief yet brilliant fifty-year period, the dynasty’s foundations were laid down: Beijing was established as the capital, the Forbidden City was built and trade networks were developed as far as Africa, the Middle East and South and East Asia. For the next three centuries, the Ming dynasty would rule a vast territory similar in scale to present-day China, disseminating its power through princely courts set up across the Chinese provinces.  This outstanding exhibition introduces the great achievements of the Ming dynasty to a new audience, six hundred years on.

The BP exhibition Ming: 50 Years that Changed China ran from 18 September 2014 to 5 January 2015, and was supported by BP.