One Last Special Exhibit

By the time we returned to Edinburgh for our last hurrah, we knew we were going to miss the Ming Dynasty exhibit at the British Museum. We were still members at the time it debuted but, alas, we were on the other side of the world. Lucky for us, the National Scottish Museum had unveiled its own Ming Dynasty exhibit shortly before our arrival in Edinburgh, so we visited that one instead.

The Ming Dynasty was the most powerful and influential in China’s history. It spanned 276 years and the rule of 16 emperors. As usual, we weren’t able to take photographs. We spent a lot of time in this exhibit. It opened with pottery and porcelain pieces that had been crafted for the Ming emperors. When a member of the royal family, requested a porcelain piece, the artisans would forge hundreds of identical pieces. The best one or two would be chosen to present to the royal family and the rest would be destroyed. Harsh.

One of the most interesting things about Chinese artifacts is that each surviving dish and box has some kind of meaning. Most were used for ritual purposes, but even everyday objects were special. Certain colors or symbols could only be used by certain ranks, for example. Only the emperor could wear clothing depicting dragons, and only the royal palace could be decorated with dragon roof tiles. Likewise, Chinese houses and palaces were laid out with a certain number of buildings and gates, usually representing the heavens.

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(Bodhisattva Weituo – a figure from the Ming dynasty found in the main section of the museum)

Much of the exhibit focused on the literati, a group of scholar-bureaucrats who had to pass an arduous test in order to take their place among high-society. At the time, the literati were considered the most accomplished and most decorated individuals . They studied many things, from business to art. Somewhat ironically, most of the iconic and celebrated artists from the period failed to pass the literati exam, though almost all of them tried. As a result, some of the Ming Dynasty’s most celebrated artists lived miserable lives in squalor and poverty. Kind of depressing, to be honest. But the surviving works are astounding.

We took a brief break for lunch before returning to the museum to see the rest of the regular exhibits we missed the first time around. We swept through the second half of the Scottish history section, starting around the time of the Jacobite rebellion. We moved on to the building of Scotland’s place in the modern world, including it’s long history in the textiles industry. The top floors of the exhibit detail the lives of famous Scots who have contributed to science, literature and other fields.

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(This suit belongs to Sir John Hynde Cotton of Madingley Hall, Cambridgeshire, a prominent English Jacobite; The only tartan outfit of this period to have survived)

The rest of the museum kind of pales in comparison to its Scottish History section, but we took some time to peruse it anyway. There was a science and evolution area, detailing the formation of the world and many of its aspects, but we didn’t spend much time there. Another exhibit featured antiques of styles which have been popular throughout the ages. Some of them were absolutely beautiful and some of them were… well, hideous.

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(This appears to be some kind of fish-boat carried on the back of a turtle)

Probably the most interesting sections of the museum were devoted to the history, art and culture of various tribal societies throughout the world. There was a section devoted to pacific islander’s society. It spoke of what the water meant to them and how even their boats could be sacred objects. There were a lot of statues and myths that you don’t get to see in many places, so we lingered for awhile to soak it all in.

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In case you haven’t noticed, we’re quite fond of museums. We considered it a day well spent.

We did hike up to Edinburgh castle before the end of our trip, but we decided not to go inside. Instead we walked around the city, found some amazing burgers for dinner, and prepared for our long train ride back to Bracknell.

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