There really is something very special about working at The University of Nottingham, with its two fully established and fully operational branch campuses at Ningbo, China and Semenyih, Malaysia. I just cannot imagine any other institution where it would be possible to have the opportunity to teach museums practitioners drawn from all over China, in an intensive 3-day course, and as part of a team made up of academics (both from Nottingham and Ningbo) as well as the Victoria& Albert Museum! For me as art historian, the opportunity to work with the V&A alone was a great experience anyway (as you can imagine, the links between me as academic teaching about the history of art, and the V&A as an institution that displays and interprets prizeless objects are many), but there is more to teaching in China than just a project and a delivery of classes, there is also the experience of travel and the opportunity to see just a little bit of China. OK, a working trip between the two campuses really does not offer that much of a chance to tag on some travelling, but looking and exploring is just necessary. I could not imagine going somewhere without trying to see as much as I possibly can. China intrigues me more than most countries, possibly becasue of a childhood fascination with the Forbidden City, but also because the language is one I find so hard. I may have been learning Mandarin in evening classes for over a year now, but still, I struggle with anything beyond basic phrases and can hardly read a handful of characters. I can travel in most countries in Europe and make myself understood- in China, I need to rely on waving arms about and smiling and it all just feels like a proper adventure.
The course I was teaching on, which I have referred to above, took place in December, and basically involved a week of being away. We left the UK on a Friday evening, arrived late on a Saturday afternoon in Shanghai, in pouring rain, and travelled straight on to Ningbo, falling into bed around midnight. Sunday was setting up and acclimatising day, and I took the opportunity to go adventuring, and visited the China Port Museum at Beilun. Which, from Ningbo, is farther than you might think and involves a one-hour taxi ride through some quite spectacular scenery. As so many of the new generation of museums in China, it’s quite a remarkable and imaginative piece of architecture, and the building at Beilun recalls a sail-shape, and a sea-snail, both from the outside but also inside, with its really extraordinary public galleries.
These open, spiralling spaces give access to the exhibition galleries but throughout the building, the spaces play with ideas about being underwater, and being submerged and enveloped by the curves of the building. It made me think of ships and portholes, and with all the curves and reflections, the quality of the refracted light did create some wonderful illusions. I was fortunate too in that I was almost the only visitor to this vast building (clearly, Beilun is not a great tourist magnet on a Sunday morning in December), so indulged myself to my heart’s content taking photographs…. On a work trip, sightseeing time is precious, so I spent the afternoon back in Ningbo exploring both Ningbo’s Bund but also the rather wonderful Ningbo Museum of Art, another museum housed in a stunning building, with generous spaces really setting off the images to great effect.
I have blogged elsewhere about my experiences teaching on the course. I was so nervous about teaching a group of delegates without a shared langauge between us, but with synchronous translation and a determination on both sides to work together, it took very little time actually before we had settled into a working relationship. For me, teaching is all about mutual trust and collective working, and the thought of not being able to respond to my students scared me. I needn’t have been worried aboiut, and maybe, this for me was then the most vlauble lesson I tok away from that experience in December: there is such a thing as a global experience. There is a way of sharing knowledge and sharing a passion for the arts and cultural heritage across language barriers and cultural barriers, and being part of that, really did feel special and maybe, just maybe, such an experience is not entirely easily captured or measured (and yes, The Times Higher Education tried in a ranking of the ‘most international universities’. That survey placed Nottingham in 111th position- really? ). Looking forward already to more adventures in China. After all, my list of places I want to see is getting longer each time I get to travel to Nottingham’s sister campus 🙂