The Oriental Museum’s Chinese collections number more than 10,000 objects. The core of these Chinese holdings is formed around two collections: an outstanding group of ceramics acquired from the Rt. Hon. Malcolm MacDonald (1901-1981) and a collection built up by Sir Charles Hardinge (1878-1968) which is particularly strong in the areas of jade and other hardstone carvings. In recent years these collections have been further enhanced both by targeted acquisitions and by the generosity of collectors such as the late Gerard Arnhold.
There are around one thousand pieces of Chinese ceramic in the museum’s collection. Of these, more than 400 - including many outstanding Song, Ming and Qing specimens - were originally owned by Malcolm MacDonald. The collection spans all major dynasties, encompassing most ware and glaze types, and illustrates all the major stages of Chinese ceramic development. The whole collection is truly outstanding in both its typological and chronological breadth, ranging in time and function from Neolithic earthenware storage jars of about 2500 BCE to contemporary works by potters such as Li Lihong.
The museum’s collection of Chinese jade and hardstones is one of the largest in the UK, and consists of more than two thousand pieces. Jade, which has long been used in China for burial, ritual, decorative, and practical uses forms an extensive part of the museum’s hardstone collection. In addition to jade, the museum also houses a wide variety of artefacts crafted from other hardstones, which were increasingly widely used by Chinese craftsmen during the Ming (1368-1644 CE) and Qing dynasties. Treasures of the collection include ancient funerary jades, human and animal carvings, seals, snuff bottles, writing and dress accessories, and vessels carved from carnelian, crystal, amber, various agates, amethyst, lapis lazuli, and a range of other hardstones. The extraordinary skill of Chinese carvers is also amply displayed throughout the museum’s collection of ivory, bamboo, wood, tortoiseshell and rhinoceros horn carving.
Painting and calligraphy were traditionally considered to be the highest of art forms in China. The museum boasts examples of painting and calligraphy, in various formats, on both silk and paper. These formats include hanging scrolls, hand scrolls, fans and album leaves, on both paper and silk. Ink rubbings also comprise an important part of the museum’s collection, as do woodcut prints by some of China’s leading late 20th and early 21st century artists.
Some of the most spectacular Chinese objects in the Museum are the embroidered and woven silks, particularly the official dragon robes and their accessories from the Qing dynasty. The collection also features footwear, headgear, theatrical robes, hangings and folk costumes. Notable among the Museum's collection of Chinese furniture is a magnificent bed made of huali hardwood with carved boxwood and ivory panels and dating to the first half of the 19th century. Bronze technology was another area where Chinese craftsmen excelled and here too the museum boasts a fine collection dating from the Shang dynasty onwards. Vessels and ornaments in gold and silver and a remarkable range of laquerware also feature in the museum’s collection.
The importance of the Oriental Museum’s Chinese collection recognised in 2008 when it was awarded Designated Collection status from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council in recognition of its national and international significance. This international status was further confirmed when, in 2016, Durham University signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Palace Museum, Beijing.
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THE PLEASURES AND PAINS OF COLLECTING
To mark the 50th anniversary of the acquisition of the Malcolm Macdonald collection of Chinese ceramics, the Oriental Museum has launched a book charting the fascinating life of politician, diplomat, collector and former Durham University Chancellor, Rt Hon Malcolm MacDonald. Find out more.