Museum of East Asian Art, Bath
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Just a few metres off The Circus in central Bath, the Museum of East Asian Art is situated in a restored Georgian house. The Museum attracts the interest of students, scholars and tourists. It includes a collection of ceramics, jades, bronzes and bamboo carvings and more, from China, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. It is the only museum in the United Kingdom dedicated solely to arts and cultures of East and Southeast Asia.
It houses a collection of almost 2,000 objects, ranging in date from c.5000 BCE to the present day. The Museum's collection started from the collection of Brian McElney OBE, a retired solicitor who practised in Hong Kong for over 35 years, and has since been expanded.
To offer facilities for the appreciation and study of East and Southeast Asian art and cultures. To this end the Museum collects, preserves, exhibits and makes available to the public, artefacts from East and Southeast Asia, and information relating to those areas. The Museum works to encourage education, creativity, dialogue and research in relation to such cultures, and strives to be accessible to as wide an audience as possible.
The Museum was founded by Brian McElney OBE. Brian spent his entire working life practising law in Hong Kong and it was during this time that he was drawn to East Asian, and especially Chinese art. In 1958 he bought his first piece, an ivory goat and kid, after which Brian’s collection grew to include jades, ceramics, scholar’s studio objects and bronzes.
After his retirement from law in 1983, Brian returned to England and procured the funds for the restoration and refurbishment of the Georgian building that houses the Museum, founding the Museum itself in 1990. Mr McElney donated his private collection to form the Museum, which he had created as a UK educational charity, opening to the public in 1993. Although the bulk of the objects come from this original donation, new donations and acquisitions have been made over the years.
Since opening to the public in April 1993, the Museum has become one of the most extensive collections of East Asian art outside London, and it is the only museum dedicated solely to the arts and cultures of East and Southeast Asia within the UK. With a collection of almost 2,000 objects, ranging in date from c.5000 BCE to the present day, the Museum offers its visitors an insight into the art and cultures of China, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. Home to one of the most comprehensive jade collections in the UK, the collection uncovers the skill of East Asian craftsmanship.
The Museum’s collection is interpreted in a lively and innovative manner. Particular attention is given to the Museum’s educational role, with special exhibitions, an events programme and new publications designed to encourage a greater understanding of East Asian arts and cultures.
Bath is said to be one of the best preserved 18th century cities in the world. It is one of only a few cities in the world designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. Attractions include the spectacular Royal Crescent and The Circus as well as the Roman Baths. Bath is ideally situated geographically on the River Avon, and being surrounded by hills and water, it conforms to rules of feng shui for a providential site; an appropriate location for the future prosperity of a collection reflecting the art and cultures of East Asia.
Bath and the West Country also have historical links to China. The trade in Chinese tea and porcelain was one of the most valued aspects of commerce in 18th century England and Bath was the second most popular resort after London for these activities. By the mid-18th century tea drinking had become an important part in the city’s social life. This historical relationship is illustrated by the Museum’s collection of Armorial Porcelain in the Ceramics Gallery, with the pieces on display having been made for prominent families in 18th century Bath and the surrounding region. This includes the Pratt Family Tureen which was purchased with funding from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), and The Art Fund charity.
The museum's founder Brian S. McElney was educated in the UK, attending school at Marlborough College where he studied classics and ancient history. He did not go to university but was articled to a solicitors’ practice in the City of London, where he qualified in 1956. He then joined the legal firm of Johnston Stokes & Master in Hong Kong, eventually rising to the position of Senior Partner in 1971. During 1973-74 he served as President of the Hong Kong Law Society. He remained as Senior Partner in his practice until 1983, continuing as a consultant until his retirement in 1992.
Brian’s career was rewarding on many levels. By mid-career he was a prominent member of Hong Kong society, noted for his discerning and extensive collection of East Asian art treasures, principally Chinese. He started collecting in 1958, despite his modest means at that time. His collecting dominated his non-work interests, and he devoted many hours to achieving a scholarly understanding of East Asian and Chinese art.
After retiring in 1992, Brian was faced with the dilemma of what to do with his by now extensive collection of East Asian art. He explored the possibilities of loaning or donating his collection to an existing museum where he could continue his involvement with Chinese art, and pass on his knowledge and enthusiasm for it to the next generation. However his approaches were in vain. Then in late 1989, only a week or so after the last unsuccessful approach, some funds in his gift became available for donation to charity, specifically including museums. Brian decided to found the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath as an educational charity to which he would donate his collection.
A Georgian house was purchased at 12 Bennett Street, located close to The Circus, one of Bath’s most prominent architectural features, and not far from another, the Royal Crescent. The house was converted in 1991 – 92 and fitted out as a museum, with attention paid to the planning and finishing of the building. Since the founding of the Museum, Brian worked there on a daily basis as the Honorary Keeper until retiring in April 2010.
The Museum of East Asian Art's permanent collection of ceramics, jades, bronzes and bamboo carvings and more are based over the two upper galleries of the Museum. These galleries house the bulk of their almost 2,000 objects, ranging in date from c.5000 BCE to the present day. Further objects, which are rotated into the permanent collection regularly, are stored in the Museum vaults and the Franklin Tsu Gallery on the ground floor is used to house temporary exhibitions.
The Museum hosts regular temporary exhibitions and has a full event programme that runs alongside these. In 2008 the Museum won a Learning Experience Award for their "Season of Tibet" exhibitions, one of their best received exhibition and event series to date. The exhibition of contemporary papercuts, hosted in 2010 to coincide with the Lunar New Year, was so popular with the public that it was extended.
The Museum has also been involved with external exhibitions and is one of the Museum partners on the travelling exhibition organised by the National Geographic Society, which includes almost 100 items from the Museum's collection. Whilst on the Oman leg of the tour, the exhibition was visited by the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who expressed an interest in having the exhibition visit the United Nations Headquarters in New York.
The Museum of East Asian Art has a full quarterly events programme, hosting a range of events on and off site which have included a talk by the Antiques Roadshow's Lars Tharp, and Bath's first East Asian Film Festival.
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