Art Curatorial Exhibitions

Conversation with the Curator: Way of the Dragon

Chipstone curator Kate Smith standing in "Way of the Dragon" at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Photo by Claudia Mooney.
Chipstone curator Kate Smith standing in "Way of the Dragon: The Chinoiserie Style, 1710-1830" at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Photo by Claudia Mooney.

The Chipstone Foundation recently opened its Summer of China exhibition: Way of the Dragon: The Chinoiserie Style, 1710-1830, which will be on view until November 6.

I sat down with the show’s curator, Kate Smith, to discuss the concept of “chinoiserie” as well as the exhibition process.

Claudia Mooney: I know a lot of visitors are probably wondering this, What does chinoiserie mean?

Kate Smith: The term “chinoiserie” basically means “in the Chinese style”. It refers to objects that are made outside of China in imitation of Chinese objects and images.

CM: What inspired you to create this exhibition?

KS: As we steadily hear more and more about China on the television and in newspapers, I became interested in how people think about and imagine a country which is so far away. In Way of the Dragon I wanted to explore how previous cultures have thought about China, so we focused on Britain in the eighteenth century. At this time merchants imported vast quantities of wondrous Chinese objects into Britain, which eventually led to British manufacturers making imitative wares – chinoiserie. Through these objects we can begin to see how British people thought about China. They also reveal some interesting aspects of British culture too though and this became really interesting to me and is the main focus of the show.

CM: Can you briefly walk us through the process?

KS: We began the curatorial process by reading scholarly articles, looking at objects and examining eighteenth-century literature. We then began having meetings with the guest curator, Prof. David Porter from the University of Michigan. Here we discussed our ideas at more length and decided on the different issues that we wanted to explore further. After that we looked more closely at the objects themselves to try and decide which objects were relevant to the themes we wanted to pursue. Once we had decided on our objects and our themes we worked on the booklet that accompanies the show and explains our arguments. Then the design team started their work of making everything look really inviting and interesting. In the end it all came together!

Title wall for "Way of the Dragon" in the Museum. Photo by Claudia Mooney.
Title wall for "Way of the Dragon" in the Museum. Photo by Claudia Mooney.

CM: What surprised you most about the curatorial/exhibition process?

KS: As a historian I’m more used to writing articles than producing exhibitions. So what really surprised me about the curatorial process was the discipline it takes to try and sum up big ideas in a few words. It’s very difficult!

CM: Do you have a favorite object in Way of the Dragon?

KS: I tried not to have a favorite, but I do. It’s the large Bristol plate in the “Wondrous Landscape” section. I just think this plate is stunning.

CM: Is there anything you would like the viewers to think about as they explore the exhibition?

KS: I would like them to think about how objects offer us a space in which to examine aspects of our lives and culture. How do particular objects in their homes help them think about issues that are important to them?

Claudia Mooney works for Chipstone, the Milwaukee-based foundation dedicated to promoting American decorative arts scholarship. She researches objects and creates relevant programming for Chipstone’s exhibitions at the Milwaukee Art Museum and in the community.

2 replies on “Conversation with the Curator: Way of the Dragon”

Brilliant! I loved the vignette segment as the intro and I enjoyed the positioning of the ceramics in the cases so you could see all sides and bottoms of the pieces.

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