Final Project: Reflection


This was my first time curating a gallery guide for a museum, and it was a refreshing experience. Our focus on the material and cultural history of the cabinets and caskets opened my eyes to the depth of each object – how they were used, in what context they functioned in. As I was in charge of the illustrations of the objects that were to be included in the guide, it was interesting to see how much detail that the craftsmen placed in each object. The target audience that our group chose also enabled me to know more about how the museum works, and what kind of events the museum held that was not accessible to the typical general public, such as exhibition openings and galas.


Review of Gallery Guide: Secrets of the Fallen Pagoda

Review of Gallery Guide: Secrets of the Fallen Pagoda

Group 2 Members: Ayesha, Naomi, Vincent, Lydia

With the review of the gallery guide of the Asian Civilisations Museum, Secrets of the Fallen Pagoda: Treasures from Famen Temple and The Tang Court, our group aims to explore how articles are being presented in a guide to aid visitors in the museum and how they enlighten them on the articles of interest; and henceforth point out strengths and weaknesses in the gallery guide, allowing us to further enhance our own gallery guide to better appeal to our targeted audience — rich patrons.



Secrets of the Fallen Pagoda is a catalogue which serves as a guide to an exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum, discussing articles from the Famen Temple crypt and other Tang dynasty artworks. The essays within the catalogue scrutinize relic worship at the Famen Temple and Tang’s Buddhist world, the reasoning for the arrangement of donations in the crypt chambers, and the Tang dynasties’ interactions with the global world. The catalogue aims to enlighten visitors on the narratives on life and Tang’s culture and heritage via ‘figures and murals from tombs, magnificent reliquary boxes, rare ceramics, and gold and silver metalwork’.


Breakdown of gallery guide

A)  Historical context of Tang China

B) Funerary figures: 2 sculptures paired with rough visual + contextual analysis

C) Objects from the Famen Temple crypt: Map of the Pagoda, and two more objects that could be found in the crypt

D) Religion of Tang China: Buddhism

E) Cosmopolitan Tang: 6 objects of different varieties presented

F) Last page: Programmes and exhibition timings


Strengths of the gallery guide

As the gallery guide is targeted at the general public who have come to view the exhibition, the guide focuses on providing a broad overview of Tang China and what its cultural heritage was like, together with a variety of different objects that could be found in that era.

Historical context is provided for the visitor who may not have had the knowledge of what Tang China before visiting the exhibition. It aids in the enlightenment of the general visitor of the time period and what items where present in the Famen Temple crypt; this creates a strong foundation for knowledge to be built on as the visitor goes through the exhibition.

The gallery guide then presents its first two articles of interest: Funerary Figures. This a good introduction to the artifacts that could have been first seen at the historical site. A general summary on the figures and their functions are also provided under this sub topic.

This is followed by a map of the Famen Temple crypt, as well as two objects of high importance to the site. The map enables the visitor to visualize the Temple Crypt and where the objects in the exhibition could have been located in. The two objects are summarized to have been placed in the most important locations of the temple; a clever choice of objects to focus on.

Religion (Buddhism) is then discussed to provide a cultural context of Tang China, paired together with a focus on a religious article. This provides a base reasoning for the appearance of religious objects that were on display in the exhibition.

The last part of the content in this gallery guide is filed under the name ‘Cosmopolitan Tang’, featuring a variety of objects from the Famen Temple crypt, with some that may have been of foreign origin. This helps to give the visitors a rundown of the different objects that had been placed in the cyrpt.


Weaknesses of the gallery guide

The gallery guide provides a good rundown of history and culture of Tang China, and a fundamental background for the objects, both in the exhibition as well as those in the guide itself.

Unfortunately, as the guide is targeted at the general public, the focus on the objects are very broad and only provide the bare minimum of knowledge on the objects. The rough visual and contextual analysis provided with each object in the guide also seem to be an reiteration of the statements found at the exhibitions as well.

With regards to aesthetics, the gallery guide presents chunks of text and pictures of objects on the side. It is simple and readable, but lacks a certain level of engagement with the reader.

As a general gallery guide, Secrets of the Fallen Pagoda: Treasures from Famen Temple and The Tang Court serves its purpose well. However, when it falls short when it comes to engaging the general visitor with objects mentioned, most likely due to it having a broad and vague targeted audience.


As aforementioned, appealing to the targeted audience is important. As our group will be focusing on rich members of the public who would most likely be the ones funding museum openings and exhibitions, we aim to create a gallery guide that is appeals to them and enlighten them on the objects in the gallery beyond the general level.

We would ensure that the appearance and aesthetics of our gallery guide would pique their interest on first sight, and design the layout to match their tastes. The content of our gallery guide will also be planned in a manner that is enjoyable and engaging to read, together with information on the objects that would enlighten them greatly.



Contextual Analysis

Contextual analysis

Mother-of-pearl casket, Gujarat, India, 16th Century

Made of teak and overlaid with mother-of-pearl using ‘small gilded silver nails’[1], it can be suggested that this casket was to be made for local use or export to global markets such as Europe[2]. The style and techniques used in the Mother-of-pearl Casket can be speculated to be a mix of influences — from Europe due to the ‘finely engraved gilded silver appliqués on the sides’ and also traditional Gujarat. Mother-of-pearl as a material was attractive due to its iridescent quality. Caskets such as the one in focus were speculated to be used as reliquaries, or to store jewelry[3], while other sources mention that some of them may have been used just for display.


European presence in the Mughal Empire and Gujarat, India
Europe’s access to the Islamic World was mostly through trade. Portuguese, Dutch, English and French merchants made their way to the Empire in the late fifteenth century, enticed by the prosperity that could be attained by the export of luxury goods to the European market. They were supported by the Mughal and Safavid governments, which wanted trade partners to boost the economy. The Portuguese arrived in India in 1498, but the British, ‘under the aegis of the East India Company, would prove to be the chief force in the subcontinent.’

Indian arists in the Mughal empire acquired the techniques used of ‘modeling and spatial recession’ that they used in application to their own crafts via referencing the engravings of sixteenth century illustrated Bibles introduced by Jesuit missionaries.[4]

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Gujarat, in western India, was the main producer of a variety of objects inlaid or made with mother-of-pearl. The main attractiveness of mother-of-pearl was due to its iridescent quality. Gujarat was first named as the main produce of mother-of-pearl craft in 1502, in which on the African East Coast, the King of Melinde presented Vasco da Gama with “a Bedstead of Cambay, wrought with gold and mother-of-pearl, a very beautiful thing”. In the context of Europe, the mother-of-pearl from India made its debut in the royal collections of the Portuguese.[5]


Mother-of-pearl: origins and techniques

Mother-of-pearl is made of ‘thin, flat calcium-carbonate plates secreted by certain bivalve mollusks (as well as cuttlefish and snails) and arranged in layers around the inside of the shell.’ The luminous colors of the mother-of-pearl are the culmination of light refracted through the multiple layers of the plates. The most well-known source of mother-of-pearl is the large saltwater pearl oyster (Aricula margaritifera or Meleagrina margaritafera), found largely in the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, South China Sea, Celebes Sea and North Pacific Ocean at a depth of 10-70 metres.

Mother-of-Pearl is a soft, malleable material, and thus can be either dissolved in acid or hand carved, then ‘polished with abrasives or acid to regain its luster’.[6] The use of mother-of-pearl in carvings expanded after the mid-fifteenth century. Majority of works made with the material are ‘circular or polygonal in form, occasionally pierced or in the plique à jour style’.[7]  It can be speculated that the plique à jour style was used in the Mother-of-Pearl Casket, where the application of mother-of-pearl is in cells on top of the base backing made out of wood. The material could be applied to a variety of surfaces as it was durable and strong enough to be laid in pieces over a wooden body or could be used to produce smaller items such as cups and bowls.

Gujarat’s mother-of-pearl can be grouped in two classifications. The Casket in focus is classified in the first group – objects with are either made of wood, with inlays of mother-of-pearl over the entire structure. The second group consists of objects made of wood and ‘covered with a dark mastic inset with pieces of mother-of-pearl in vegetal, geometric and, less frequently, figurative designs.’ From a close examination of physical objects from both groups, it can be said that the two techniques of the groups influenced each other and may have been made in the same location; ‘that there exists a small group of objects that has both mastic-inset and overlaid mother-of-pearl also suggests that craftsmen working in the two techniques collaborated or deliberately worked in each others’ style.’ [8]


Other similar objects of interest made in Gujarat, India

Tortoiseshell casket, 16th century, Gujarat, India

Like the mother-of-pearl casket, this tortoiseshell casket was made in Gujarat, India in the same era. The casket is crafted with tortoiseshell, which are linked together by ‘vertical bands of silver mounts around the body’. Similarities can be drawn between this tortoiseshell casket and the mother-of-pearl casket – both caskets have similar features: the apparent European influences derived from their rectangular body and lid, as well as silver appliqués on the sides. Similar to the mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell articles were a ‘specialty of Gujarat in western India’ and they functioned as reliquaries as well.


The European influences apparent in caskets made in Gujarat suggest that most caskets were used as exports to global markets, especially to Europe and Portugal. The caskets had multiple functions – for display, jewelry storage and as reliquaries to store precious religious objects. As such, they were of prized luxury articles and were highly likely commissioned by royalty or churches of those markets.


[1] Asian Civilisation Museum. Mother-of-pearl casket.

[2] V&A Collections. Casket.

[3] Asian Civilisation Museum. Mother-of-pearl casket.

[4] Metmuseum. “Europe and the Islamic World, 1600- 1800.”
Accessed 10 November 2018. Retrieved from

[5] V&A Collections.  Casket.

[6] Slatner-Prückl, Michaela. “Mother-of-pearl”. Grove Art Online.
Accessed 10 November 2018. Retrieved from

[7] Slatner-Prückl. “Mother-of-pearl”

[8] V&A Collections.  Casket.



Mother-of-Pearl Casket

Tortoiseshell Casket

Slatner-Prückl, Michaela. “Mother-of-pearl”. Grove Art Online.
Accessed 10 November 2018. Retrieved from

Metmuseum. “Europe and the Islamic World, 1600- 1800.”
Accessed 10 November 2018. Retrieved from

Göttler, C. and Mochizuki, M. “The Nomadic Object: The Challenge of World for Early Modern Religious Art” pp 400
Accessed 1 November 2018. Retrieved from

Carvalho, Pedro M. “What Happened to the Mughal Furniture? The Role of the Imperial Workshops, the Decorative Motifs Used, and the Influence of Western Models”
Accessed 1 November 2018.
Retrieved from

V&A Collections. Casket.

V&A Collections. Tortoiseshell Casket.