Culture, History, & Elegance: East Asia at The National Museum of Scotland


A few weeks ago, The National Museum of Scotland opened two new galleries- the Ancient Egypt gallery and the East Asia gallery. Please make sure to check out our article on the Ancient Egypt gallery, but in this post we will explore East Asia.

As you enter the gallery, you are greeted by Weituo- his palms joined together in a gesture that is meant to be welcoming. The beautiful greens, golds, and blacks that make up the sculpture immediately catch the eye and give a glimpse into the treasures that lay in store just beyond.

The gallery covers the art and culture of three countries: Japan, China, and Korea. Certain themes emerge as you explore the gallery including an incredible sense of history as well as diverse, yet shared cultures. As there is much to find in the gallery, the purpose of this article is to simply highlight a few artefacts from each country with the hopes that you will eventually be able to explore it for yourselves.

Japan

Working around the room in a clockwise direction, we start with Japan. As a writer who is passionate about anthropology and

history, I was thrilled to explore the gorgeously curated collection of Japanese art and artefacts. This part of the gallery starts off by discussing the idea of ‘educated pursuits’ and I found my eyes drawn to the exquisite writing box (c1890) on display. It is made of gold-lacquered wood. I often hand write my blog articles and stories before typing them up and would love the chance to use such a luxurious-looking set- it certainly inspires.

Continuing on, if you look carefully, the smaller objects called, inrō, are particularly distinct. They are tightly fitted compartments made of lacquered wood and strung together on a silk cord; they were made for carrying medicine among other small items. According to the Museum, men wore inrō suspended from their sash (of their robe), and it was secured at the top by a carved toggle (netsuke).

However, one of the the most popular Japanese artefacts sits in wait in a glass-enclosed case towards the middle of the room. One's attention cannot help but be drawn to the incredibly well-preserved samurai suit of armour. It is made of hammered iron, silk, and leather and radiates an imposing aura all around it. The message is clear- the samurai were a powerful ruling class. To the left of the suit of armour are samurai swords and spears. I certainly wouldn’t want to have a ‘Night at the Museum’ moment with this display. Although, now that I think about it, there are Egyptian tablets in the adjoining room. All joking aside, make sure to take your time walking around the case so that you can fully appreciate the incredible samurai works of art.

The other side of the case has a fantastic display of archery items. The display points out that, in medieval Japan, mounted archery was a primary symbol of the samurai class. There is a quiver, arrows, saddle, and stirrups. Look at closely at the picture of the saddle…. doesn’t look very comfortable does it? It’s made of wood.

Fortunately, the informational plaque explains that some sort of cushion would good on top of the saddle for a more pleasant experience for the rider. However, I sure hope that they used saddle blankets during samurai times for the sake of the horses.

China

The Chinese art and artefacts are also beautifully laid out in the gallery. Not to be outdone by the nearby samurai display, is a ceremonial armour with helmet (c1880s) from the Qing Dynasty. Like the samurai, the Manchu, were renowned for their equestrian skills and were known as ‘the people on horseback’.

As in Japan, power and rank were also an important part of Chinese culture. There is an exquisite ceremonial headdress (19th century) known as a ‘phoenix crown’ that would have been worn by a noble lady. It is decorated with kingfisher feathers from a species in south-east Asia that were “imported especially for their vivid colour and lustrous sheen”.

Korea

The Korean art and artefacts displayed in the gallery showcase their elegant minimalism. A few highlights include a lovely, lidded box inlaid with mother-of-pearl (late 19th century). I found the display of Korean hats fascinating as well as the palace uniform (gugunbok).

Concluding Thoughts

The richness, deep rooted cultures, and common bonds of all three countries shines through in this new gallery. Of course, there is so much history to cover, but the Museum does an excellent job at highlighting some beautiful aspects of each country.

If you are fortunate enough to visit Edinburgh, please make sure to visit the National Museum of Scotland and visit the newly opened East Asia gallery. It won’t disappoint. And, while you are in town, check us out as well. We, including our Golden Retriever tour guide, Sawyer, would love to take you on a wee walk to see all this captivating city has to offer.

Until next time- Explore & Discover!

#museums #EastAsia #culture #arthistory

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