Malott Hall of Jades



of an Exhibit

by Brian Slattery

Published on March 11, 2013

  • Description:

    As a child, the Malott Hall of Jades was among my favorite exhibits at the Field Museum (Chicago, IL). I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and often visited the Hall of Jades with my family. After learning more about museum engagement and learning, I’ve found my childhood fascination with the Hall of Jades more and more strange, as it was a relatively dark, somber, sparsely-interpreted area that seemed to defy current principles of engaging exhibit design. But I enjoyed the quiet area with each jade piece illuminated in ways that allowed for extended visual study—which I would often do, my small face as close as possible to the ancient artifacts. When I learned the Hall of Jades had been revamped since my last visit, I knew I had to return to see if it was still as fascinating as I remembered it, given that I expected the Hall to be changed to cater to a more “fast-paced” modern audience.

    Ascending the stairs to the Hall of Jades, a glowing display with the large character for “jade” (玉) is the first thing I noticed. The jade objects were all visible in cases covering the walls, and in the center I could see more works and interpretive text as well as an enormous boulder which I assume was some kind of raw jade. I turned left at first, but seeing that that was the direction towards more modern jade pieces, I instead turned right towards the prehistorical objects. The jades were arranged chronologically in a counterclockwise direction, with each case containing pieces from the same period. Between each case was a short display transitioning into the next period of Chinese history. As I remembered, the jade objects varied greatly in both size and detailing. I also noticed that the entire area was more evenly lit, which made the floor and interpretive text much more legible but also seemed to make some of the jade pieces harder to see. There were a few that were backlit (one that stands out is a desk screen meant to block sunlight) which I greatly enjoyed. While the lack of bright lighting was a bit frustrating at first, it allowed some pieces (such as a snuff box with a natural scene in relief) to show a range of lighting and reflection that made it very striking and almost ominous. Many of the pieces with extremely fine detail were clearly visible, although there were a few instances where I would’ve loved to be able to bring them closer to examine, or shed more light on them.

    After working my way around the wall cases, I then checked out the central area, which seemed very different from what I recalled from my visits as a child. There was very interesting information on the mineral compositions of jadeite and nephrite, which complemented the different pieces (as the composition of the object affected its texture and appearance, which was a nice connection to make). Also, I loved the linguistic information on the history of the word “jade”. What I found most striking about this area, though, was its focus on jade in the histories of other cultures around the world (that had access to the material). As far as I remembered, the Hall of Jades only contained Chinese pieces, and these objects were a nice counterpoint to my initial conception that jade was only really significant in Chinese history. Some of the Maori objects in particular were beautiful, and in a different way than the Chinese ones (these seemed to focus more on large flowing shapes wrought in jade, rather than fine details and small webbed or interconnected pieces).

    In the end, I found that the design changes led to changes in my perception of the jade artifacts, by showing them in a new light (literally) and comparing them to similar pieces from around the world. The Hall seemed to be a springboard for learning more about the pieces while not overshadowing them, and I found I didn’t particularly miss interactive or moving elements. However, I would’ve enjoyed being able to control the lighting and orientation of the jade pieces in the cases. Although as a child I was content to just stare, this visit showed that the jades are very interesting to display with and without bright lighting, and some subtle control over this could be relatively non-intrusive. Furthermore, extended labeling could possibly work in a space like this (expanding on the description of the period uses of the different jade pieces), which is more contemplative and quiet than the rest of the museum. Overall, I was glad that the new elements and display techniques served to extend my longstanding appreciation for the Hall of Jades.

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