The Minneapolis Institute of Art has slowly been collecting a world-class collection of artifacts from the China’s Ming era. They have reconstructed an original Ming home in the museum and filled it with works and artifacts from the era.
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Finally tonight, Ming in Minneapolis. Fred De Sam Lazaro of Public Station KTCA has the story.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The Minneapolis Institute of Arts began collecting furniture from China’s Ming period a few years ago. Curator Robert Jacobsen says the pieces are increasingly prized. The Ming era, the 14th to 18th century, was one of the most prolific for Chinese art, literature, and architecture. By 1995, the institute’s collection, sponsored by a prominent local benefactor, had grown to become one of the world’s largest, and Jacobsen says it deserved to be shown in a fitting, authentic setting.
ROBERT JACOBSEN, Minneapolis Institute of Arts: By the second year of building the collection it was becoming world class already at that time. We began talking about context – how are we going to show this? They said, well, if I can get to China, there’s an opportunity perhaps to buy houses, or at least rooms from houses.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Jacobsen went to China’s Souchow region about 150 miles inland from Shanghai and a cultural center during the Ming era. He was encouraged by new laws that have returned many buildings to their original private owners.
ROBERT JACOBSEN: There’s not much of it left. It’s going fast.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Ming homes were once common in this area, but they’ve begun to disappear in a China caught in a rapid modernization drive that has transformed the architecture of villages like this one, called Dongshan.
ROBERT JACOBSEN: Well, yeah, this saddens me a lot, because, you know, it’s just a generic approach now. And I think there’s going to be a lot of character that’s lost as they move into these fired ceramics. Somebody’s called this bathroom architecture, you know, where the whole inside is just tiled out, and they wouldn’t be doing it if they didn’t think it was an improvement, interestingly enough. We found two rooms – a Ming Dynasty reception hall and a beautiful 18th century Shing Dynasty library with an attached rock garden. We dismantle them and ship them to Minneapolis.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Along with the buildings, Jacobsen invited a team of Souchow artisans to rebuild the structures in Minneapolis.
ROBERT JACOBSEN: It just seems better than our hard-hatted union guys standing around because we try to figure it out, versus these fellows doing it their way, which is without electricity and without power lifts, and we’ll try and keep that as best we can – intact for them. The good news is that almost everything has arrived in very good shape.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Although they arrived remarkably undamaged, Jacobsen said the dismantled homes, thousands of pieces of timber and tile, presented a huge puzzle to put back together. Each piece, however, did bear calligraphy, instructions, and the window into Chinese life 400 years ago.
ROBERT JACOBSEN: Each one of these pieces, in effect, is different, so it had to be inscribed on the back as to where it went. I’ve just made full life-size Xeroxes of these pieces, because we did put them up where they belong. I mean, it’s very much like old English today. It isn’t the way we speak. We know it’s English. We know some of the words, and we can read Chaucer and get a gist or sense of it, but it also takes extra work to really get the full impact.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The Chinese visitors also requested a Ming era substitute for the museum’s electric lifts, which are used to hoist heavy loads. They asked for a block and tackle and a bamboo tripod.
ROBERT JACOBSEN: And it works – East meets West – I don’t know – maybe that’s the point.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The museum did manage to fashion a tripod from steel piping, instead of bamboo. As it turned out, the seemingly medieval technology was the best, if not the only way to hoist the 800-pound beams that must pivot and articulate so they can be lined up to slop the mortises and tenens – a joinery that’s a hallmark of Ming buildings. The Chinese artisans were not opposed to today’s tools, however.
ROBERT JACOBSEN: Electric screw guns have become a great rage with them. They love our little diamond saws, it’s so much better than hammers and chisels. And, as say, the scissors jacks don’t work for beams, but they love them for doing tile work up on the roof, because we can put a lot of weight on and just lift it up there. So there are aspects of it certainly that they’d just as soon, I think, have be permanently installed in China.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Two months later, the Chinese masons completed the project, capped by the erection of the rock garden, an important element in Ming architecture.
ROBERT JACOBSEN: I think in the West we were brought up on the stability of a pyramid. We’ll put the base, the broadest portion to the bottom. And it looks stable to our eyes, and the Chinese do just the opposite. It almost makes you nervous to look at something like this, which weighs two ton. It’s seven feet high, and it comes down to the small pinnacle, they work down at about an hour and a half, and believe it or not, they got that rock to stand this way on its own. And once they did that, they reached this sort of inner harmony, and this is, of course, replication of nature, and nature is always in balance. We may not understand it, but we can’t affect it, and it’s good to somehow live harmoniously with the forces of nature. When we combine the fact that the musical instruments would have been kept here, the calligraphy, the paintings, the rock garden, the view of nature, it would almost like be to me being able to take a trip within one’s house. We often think that to be creative, you have to get away, you have to be Zen-like, you go to the mountains, you sit, and reflect on life in all its meanings in a monastery. It was just the opposite of a monastic existence. It wasn’t about possessing things. It was about what mattered to their creative pattern.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The Ming rooms opened to the public in late August and are a permanent exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.