MUSEUM 2050 Dispatches

Updates from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Ariana Chaivaranon

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art closed to the public on March 14, ten days before Kansas City locked down. As cyberspace flooded with faulty platitudes of “togetherness,” I experienced the racism plaguing the country at home. A group of men had spat at my sister, jeering that she “had the coronavirus.” I added hats and glasses to my mask accouterment, attempting to make my Thai-Chinese features less hypervisible in Kansas City. On April 15, the CDC published a racist misuse of a Qing Dynasty rank badge to illustrate the cover of the Emerging Infectious Diseases issue. As I considered my role as an Interpretive Planner, to help diverse audiences feel seen and heard in the stories of our collections, I realized erasing my own cultural identity was counterproductive. The Nelson-Atkins could play a role in combatting the irrational equation of Chinese culture with the virus.

The Nelson-Atkins’ collection of Chinese art, assembled largely by Laurence Sickman and C.T. Loo for the museum’s opening in 1933, is among the strongest in the county. Most Kansas Citians, however, know little about Chinese culture. I joined a cross-divisional team to create an immersive, online experience that would strengthen understanding of Chinese art and humanize Chinese culture at zero cost. I partnered with our curator of Chinese art to identify an under-exhibited masterpiece in our collection that could offer another lens on aspects of contemporary experiences of the pandemic. We selected the 1000-year-old Illustration to the Second Prose Poem on the Red Cliff handscroll, which relates a timeless story of friendship, social exile, and the audacity of dreaming. To help contemporary audiences connect with each scene, we wrote didactics and incorporated translations of the poetic Daoist inscriptions. Our web developer adapted the code of the University of Chicago’s East Asian Scroll Paintings viewer to display new content. Within weeks, we brought the scroll to life through an online experience that transports viewers along Su Shi’s journey of self-realization. In addition to reaching hundreds of online visitors, the evergreen experience deepened my colleagues’ appreciation of our Chinese collection.

Nationally ranked U.S. museums like the Nelson-Atkins have the power to facilitate understanding of Chinese cultural patrimony not as artifacts but as living actors beloved across the globe. Currently, I’m working with a cross-departmental team to design an experience that tells the story of our Chinese Temple Ceiling with empathy for visitors to Zhihua Temple in Beijing, where the plaque outside Wanfo Pavilion reads, “Unfortunately, the exquisite caisson ceiling was sold to the U.S.A., and now, it is preserved in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.” The project is the product of sharing and international collaboration between the Nelson-Atkins, the Center for The Art of East Asia at the University of Chicago, Xi’an Jiaotong University, and the Beijing Institute of Technology. We aim to create a digital liminal space between the Wanfo Pavilion and the Nelson-Atkins Museum, so Chinese and American audiences can appreciate the life of the ceiling and respect the rich cultural contexts of both its former and current home.

When encyclopedic museums like the Nelson-Atkins excavate and disclose the challenging legacies embedded in our collections, we offer audiences moments of reflection on the complex wonders and transformative responsibilities that come with cultural exchange. Covid-19 has given us an opportunity to design encounters between visitors and our collection in virtual space, neither in the Kansas City nor Beijing but in the interstitial, international zones of the world wide web. To define our place in the future, encyclopedic art museums may look to our collections, which instantiate literacy in ambiguity, positionality in process, and the conservation of complexity.

About the Author:

Ariana Chaivaranon is an artist and an Interpretive Planner at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.

About the Series:

Museum 2050 has always been about bringing people together, through our communities shared passion for museums and researching institutional development. As the world slowly, and carefully starts reopening, we are checking in weekly with various members of our community to share their personal reflections, anecdotes and musings about how they and their institutions have been operating in the face of this pandemic. In these incredibly difficult times for all, we hope that these brief vignettes from around the world bring us closer together, and remind us that even when the world stops and museum doors close, we still persevere.