Yin Yu Tang

Review

of an Exhibition

by alison jean

Published on December 26, 2012

  • Description:

    Yin Yu Tang is an authentic 200-year-old merchant’s home from Hongcun village in China’s southeastern province of Anhui. About a decade ago, the house was dismantled and moved to the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts, where it was re-erected by a team of Chinese and American architects, artisans, conservators, engineers, and museum experts. Reflecting the geography and history of PEM’s location along the North Shore of Massachusetts, the museum’s core collection is comprised of maritime art and artifacts from as early as the late 18th century. Given Yin Yu Tang’s own connection to the trade industry and the prevalence of Chinese exports to the New World during this period, the house complements PEM’s mission to “to create experiences that transform people’s lives by broadening their perspectives, attitudes, and knowledge of themselves and the wider world.”

    Visiting Yin Yu Tang costs an additional $5 on top of the regular admission price for adults of $15 (children, seniors, and students pay a reduced fee). Self-guided audio tours are available at specific times throughout the day; there are more options on the weekends as Yin Yu Tang is a regular destination for school groups on weekdays. During the summer months, you should reserve a timed ticket well in advance of your visit, but during the winter, it is quite possible to arrive at the museum and book a tour for that day. There is a dedicated page on PEM’s website to help people plan their visit to Yin Yu Tang, including a brief overview of the house and its significance as well as a number of helpful hints, such as bringing your coat with you as the house is outdoors and often chilly! No photography is allowed.

    An audio guide is provided with the ticket, and there are about a dozen stopping points throughout the two-story house (an elevator and stairs connect the first and second floor). I really enjoyed the range of voices and perspectives offered, including comments by PEM’s well-known curator of Chinese art, Nancy Berliner, and a number of the house’s former inhabitants. These oral histories, delivered first in Chinese before the English translation is provided, offer personal accounts of life in Yin Yu Tang and the surrounding village, touching on subjects such as the role of women, ancestor worship, and the public education system. I was disappointed, however, that none of the architects or conservators from the reconstruction process were featured. Also, while the audio guide does allow you to control the pace of your visit, it is an isolating experience. An onsite interpreter (at present, there are two guards) would be an invaluable addition, providing opportunity for a more interactive experience.

    60-70% of the artifacts originally belonged to the Huang family, eight generations of which lived in this house over the span of ~200 years. Visitors learn that it was common for an average of 30 members of the extended Huang family to live here at the same time, and this mix of generations is certainly reflected in the objects. For example, chamber pots and portable braziers contrast with the government-installed loud speaker from the 1950s. One of the most delightful moments on the audio guide occurred on the second floor, when you were instructed to lean over the balcony and “imagine the sights and sounds” while simultaneously hearing a sound clip of everyday noises from life in Yin Yu Tang. It presents a startling contrast to the rather dark and somber mood of the house in its current context.

    There are 16 bedrooms in Yin Yu Tang as well as a kitchen and two public areas – a receiving hall downstairs and an upstairs living room of sorts. It was frustrating that very little information is provided as to why over 50% of the rooms are closed to the public. Of the ~8 that are open, the furniture and objects are displayed as if the house’s inhabitants had just stepped outside. For example, slippers hang from a pole as if airing out, a bowl of rice sits on a table, and a blue jacket is strung from a second-story window to dry. On the one hand, I enjoyed experiencing this “lived in” environment, a departure from the traditional display-case method of presenting historic objects. However, I was disappointed that I did not come away with much understanding of what it would have been like living in Yin Yu Tang during the 18th or 19th centuries since the living history exhibition concentrates on the house’s final inhabitants from the 20th century.

    Furthermore, I imagine that it would be quite hard for a child to walk through the house without being able to touch any of the objects. The novelty might be enough to engage a child initially, but it would require significant self-restraint to resist touching any of the displayed artifacts. I know I was tempted! It caused me to wonder how school groups fare and why PEM has not addressed this seeming issue. Perhaps a few objects in each room could be replicas of the originals with discrete “touch me” signs, or perhaps a few iPads could be placed throughout the house to allow visitors to zoom in on the objects.

    After ~40 minutes in the house, I entered an adjacent gallery where additional objects and photographs are on display as well as three short films, playing on a continuous loop in a small theater. In place of the audio guide, wall text and signage interpret the significance of the exhibition pieces for the visitor. A range of topics are touched upon, including the ingenious joinery methods used to build the house without nails, 20th century clothing styles of rural villagers from this region of China, and examples of inventive farming tools from the pre-industrial era. A few photographs help to humanize the voices from the audio guide although I wish the signage had more explicitly drawn connections to the voices I had heard, especially given the challenge of remembering Chinese names across multiple generations.

    I was fortunate to enter the theater when the film about dismantling and re-constructing the house happened to be playing. Having the chance to see Yin Yu Tang in its original context of Hongcun as well as the intricate work of taking it apart piece by piece were invaluable to understanding the full scope of this project as well as its one-of-a-kind qualities.

    The final room to visit is a charming educational space that appears to have been designed for school groups although the general public is welcome to enter. Here, thankfully, you are invited to touch and play with a few of the objects seen in Yin Yu Tang. For example, there are conical hats and clothes for trying on, a broom and dustbin made from reeds, instruments, an abacus, and a specially-designed mah jong table. There is also a shelf with several reference books and a computer station for accessing PEM’s impressive interactive and multi-media software for further exploring Yin Yu Tang. On it, you can explore blueprints of the original house, zoom into details of its architectural and decorative features, learn about the Huang family’s genealogy, see images of village life, and hear more audio.

    I left the exhibition uplifted by this final room’s clear intent to better serve younger audiences. Upon re-entering the museum proper, however, I realized that neither the audio guide nor the signage in the adjacent galleries commented on Yin Yu Tang’s connection to PEM’s maritime art and American art collections. This omission does a disservice not only to Yin Yu Tang’s remarkable history and journey to the US, but also to PEM’s overarching mission to promote better understanding of just how interconnected the world is.

Latest Comments (2)

an engaging review, alison

by Kathleen Mclean - December 29, 2012

images would have helped me understand your experience—I’m assuming that PEM has a no-photo policy, correct?

follow-up

by Alison Jean - January 03, 2013

Hi Kathy,

Yes, unfortunately photography was not allowed in Yin Yu Tang (please see 2nd paragraph of my review).

Best,
Alison

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