Floris Lafontant is a graduate student in the Masters of Art History program and the Museum Studies graduate certificate program.
Over the end of June and beginning of July, I traveled to China with fellow graduate student Jayne Cole and Dr. Elizabeth Kindall. The seventeen-day trip was arranged around important sites for each of our research projects. I had never been to Asia before and I was excited for the chance to continue the research I began in Dr. Kindall’s Fall 2016 Contemporary Chinese Art course.
Jayne and I arrived in Beijing, where we met Dr. Kindall. Over the next seventeen days we traversed China to five other cities: Hangzhou, Ningbo, Nanjing, Yangzhou, and Shanghai. We visited a range of historic sites from tourist staples like the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square to traditional gardens, history museums, and contemporary art museums. We visited sites that were swarming with fellow tourists as well as museums where we were the only visitors in the expansive halls. My research specifically pertained to two art museums in Shanghai, but I think the knowledge acquired by visiting the gamut of historic sites was crucial for forming a well-rounded and informed argument.
I was incredibly grateful to travel with Dr. Kindall. This was my first research trip abroad and my first time in a country where I did not speak the language at all. What could have been a stressful time was instead a deeply informative and enlightening experience with Dr. Kindall’s guidance, experience, and language skills.
Jayne and I acted as each other’s research assistants throughout the trip. After traveling so far and with only so much time at each site, I found having a partner invaluable. Our goal was to gather as much information as possible to use upon our return to Minnesota. We traded off on taking notes, took countless photos, and bounced ideas and questions off each other. It helped having a friend and colleague to talk through all the new information we acquired throughout our days.
Surrounding this research trip, I did an independent study with Dr. Jayme Yahr to develop my research into a Museum Studies focused paper. In my original paper for Dr. Kindall’s seminar, I researched Chinese art collector couple Wang Wei and Liu Yiqian. I argued for a connection between Wang Wei’s gender identity and the art collection she shares with her husband. My goal with the research trip abroad was to see if this idea was manifested in her private museums in Shanghai.
The two private museums we visited in Shanghai were the Long Museum West Bund and the Long Museum Pudong, both owned by Wang Wei and Liu Yiqian. Following the visits, I felt that the museums did not provide substantial evidence to support or refute my original claims. At the time, it was frustrating to feel as though more than a semester’s worth of research had come to a dead end. With Dr. Yahr’s guidance, I shifted focus and reevaluated my research. Rather than investigate identity and gender studies, I found my research supported an analysis of identity and the tenuous line between collector and consumer. Building off my observations of the Long Museum West Bund and my study of Wang Wei’s interviews since 2009, I completed a paper titled “Now on Display: Wang Wei and Liu Yiqian.” The final result is not what I had expected to achieve at the start of my independent study. It would never have taken the direction it did without my research trip to experience the museums in China first-hand.