Countries and cultures are defined by borders, historically and in the present day. Current political conversation in this country revolves around building a wall along the border between the United States and Mexico, while in the recent Winter Olympics, North and South Korea temporarily dissolved its borders to march under a unified flag. Symbolic or concrete, borders convey meaning and shape our understanding of history and culture.
Borders also delineate how we tell stories at the Birmingham Museum of Art. As in many encyclopedic art museums, our galleries separate the arts of Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe. A new initiative called Intersections crosses these “borders” to explore the connections between cultures. Beginning this spring, visitors will see individual works move into new galleries, breaking through this often strict divide. These objects will be accompanied with interpretation that draws attention to the ways in which cultures have collaborated and collided over the centuries through trade, colonialism, diplomacy, resistance, and migration.
Our first Intersections initiative appears in our recently reinstalled 17th-century Dutch and Flemish gallery, and brings Dutch artist Ludolf Backhuysen’s painting, The Man-o’-War ‘Bruinvisch’ and Other Ships in Rough Sea, from 1675-1680 together with a porcelain bowl made by an unknown maker in China in about 1625. The European passion for this particular type of blue-and-white porcelain ignited in 1602 when a Dutch ship captured a Portuguese vessel carrying thousands of pieces of Chinese ceramics. The Dutch looted the ship’s contents and sold the porcelain at home, which became incredibly popular. In light of this demand, Chinese factories increased their production of blue-and-white porcelain to suit this appetite and altered traditional and religious designs to suit European tastes and uses. The Dutch merchant fleet, under the protection of the country’s navy, facilitated this international trade.
By juxtaposing painting and porcelain, we can better tell the story of how the decor within Dutch homes, as well as the look of traditional Chinese ceramics, fundamentally changed in the 17th century through a looted ship and a globalized market. Look for more Intersections in the galleries this year, as we bring our diverse collections into conversation to share multicultural histories and border crossings.