As a History of Design student at the University of Brighton, I’m always curious to find out how certain objects end up inside the museums I visit. Often this involves a lengthy process of funding, applications and red tape which we as visitors so rarely comprehend. As a result, my recent placement at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery has definitely been an eye-opener as I’ve had the opportunity to help with a textiles acquisition by the World Art collection.
We’ve had a group of Chinese Miao textile items donated by the collector’s partner, and I’ve been helping to catalogue each piece using the Museum’s collections management system. To be fully catalogued, each item must have basic details such as a number, description, location and photo, as well as useful extras like date and background, which can be found in the collector’s notes.
The pieces themselves are all beautiful examples of traditional embroidery and dyeing techniques from the Miao ethnic minority living in southern China. The Miao people live in remote mountainous areas which have been historically difficult to reach, and as a result their culture has remained distinctive and localised for many centuries. The techniques which are used in these garments have been preserved through generations, and are some of the finest textiles from this region. Instead of investing in architecture or other art forms, the Miao place much of their wealth into dress, especially their local costume which is worn at festivals throughout the year and differs greatly from village to village.
I am lucky enough to be working with these textiles before they enter the museum case – it’s been a pleasure to see and touch (with gloves on!) up close these stunning pieces, and learn how they were made. I’ve never seen such tiny but flawless cross-stitch! The Miao are also known for using silver and tin in their embroidery to add a bit of extra sparkle. Thin metal pieces are wrapped around yarn and stitched onto jackets, skirts, and baby-carriers. Baby-carriers are a key part of Miao life. They are painstakingly handmade and decorated before the first-born, and are then used throughout childhood to keep the baby safe and warm on their mother’s back whilst she works during the day.
Whilst most of the skirts, jackets, jewelry and cloths are original and were worn and used by ordinary Miao people, some of the items were custom-made to sell to outsiders. As transport links have improved and it’s possible to travel longer distances, some rural craftspeople are starting to take trips to the cities to sell their unique textiles in tourist areas. The tourists are also visiting Miao areas, as seen in the growth of so-called ‘textile tours’ in the region that aim to bring specialist or intrepid amateur textile collectors to see these techniques firsthand. It has resulted in the paradox whereby traditional costumes are being worn less as modern culture mixes with old customs, yet it can be more lucrative than ever to keep the old skills alive for the burgeoning tourist market.
These items were collected by Gilbert Hampden Manley during such textile tours. Gilbert’s detailed notes (including prices, locations, anecdotes and photographs) have greatly enriched the story of their journey here to the museum’s archives. After the long delicate process of cataloguing and storing these items, they will be a valuable resource available through the Museum’s online collections search facility, and for potential future display.
Rosie Clarke, History of Design student, University of Brighton