Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences: Reflections of Asia

Hello everyone. It has a been a while since I last wrote a review for Rebecca’s blog and this one will be a very detailed and interesting review of the new Reflections of Asia exhibition now on at the Powerhouse Museum until 2020. As a volunteer, I am responsible for exhibition interpretation and program delivery via tours. This review will encompass both the exhibition experience as a visitor and as a volunteer.


The exhibition encompasses over 500 objects from the 10,000 strong Asian collection of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS). These objects are divided into 7 main themes that reflect the main collection areas, including wood and laquer work, ceramics, metalwork, textiles and dress, small treasures, and contemporary fashion and art. In the exhibition, each theme is highlighted by a particular individual responsible for contributing to the current state of that collection area.

Octagonal cloisonné box.
Brahma and Chandra, Sino- Tibetan figurines from Vajrabhairava group. Made in China, 1400-1499.


Blue CJ750 by Shi Jindian. On loan from the White Rabbit Gallery.


One of the main functions of the exhibition is to show more of the MAAS collection, similar to previous Recollect exhibitions, albeit in this case with greater explanation and more informative text allowing for a more structured learning experience. Secondly, both the thematic and individual personality profiles provide a timeline of sorts that demonstrate the evolution of the collection practices of MAAS over its history. This has shifted from the 19th century colonial perspective of the ‘Exotic Far East’ to Asia being an active global agent in the world stage with varying levels of cross-cultural interaction with the West.

In terms of layout, the bulk of the objects are displayed in a multi-leveled glass cabinet, separated according to theme. There are also several showcases along the far right wall and some free-standing larger objects. This provides an open space through which one can walk down either side of the main cabinet, maximising visitor flow through the display. It does, however, require moving around the entire display and seeing all the objects, a slight annoyance if someone is only interested in the woodwork or ceramics.

Entering the space, visitors are presented with a blue steel wire model of a ‘CJ750 Blue’, built over a three year period by Shi Jindian. It is a replica of a Chiang Jiang military bike used by the Chinese in the 1960s and 1970s based on the Soviet replica of the BMW motorcycle. This represents the contemporary perspective of the exhibition in collecting practices shifting from a colonial view to global contemporary concerns. Building upon this initial drawpoint, the exhibition case begins with contemporary art, including one of the three loans for the exhibition, a paper yarn replica of a Chinese Imperial dragon robe (jifu) made from a Chinese- English dictionary on loan from the White Rabbit gallery. It is exhibited next to one of my favourite objects, an 18th century apricot yellow jifu for the imperial heir with a number of five clawed dragons inscribed, symbols of the dynamic force of the universe and the ‘Son of Heaven’ (Emperor).

From here, the exhibition progresses primarily chronologically, with collector profiles used to illustrate the evolution of collection practices and cultural western attitudes towards Asia in the present day. For instance, the ceramics theme is centred around Charles Laseron (1887-1959), a curator who lobbied for a national collection by founding the NSW Applied Art Trust in the early 1900s that eventually developed into the foundation of the MAAS Asian collection.

I would rather not detract from any readers own experience of the exhibition so I will leave my detailed explanation of the exhibition there. The only other point of interest is the digital lounge and interactive screens throughout the space that not only illustrate some fascinating contemporary photographs of changing Asian fashion, but, provide visitors the opportunity to explore the collection database by entering the object registration numbers found along the sides of the cabinets. This is one of the best elements of this exhibition as it allows the visitor to learn as much as they want and it gives a glimpse of the amount of research that goes into creating such a large exhibition.

For example, the large incense burner pictured below was originally accessioned in two separate lots in 1936 and 1939. It was only during the lead up to this exhibition that it was discovered the dragons were the handles for the burner itself. Even since then, the figure at the top of the burner has been reinterpreted as a Hindu deity rather than Princess Kaguya from ‘The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.’ Overall, I find the digital resources a fantastic tool that, even after multiple viewings, helps to reveal some new detail I had previously missed.

Incense burner with Dragon handles.


At this point, I would like to shift focus to that of a volunteer. One of the foundational aspects of the tours is the focus on facilitating an experience where the varied and diversified interests of each visitor is allowed to be shared and highlighted. This is opposed to the more traditional 20th century view of museums providing a didactic learning experience where the expert curator rarely engages the visitor, preferring research and, when they do engage, a more structured educational experience.

This shift to an experiential participatory learning experience, as much of the museum educational literature demonstrates, helps highlight and foster the individual differences in the how we learn and conceptualise learning as more than formal school or university lectures. This is done using the ‘See, Think, Wonder’ framework whereby the guide poses different questions about the objects relative to the age of the visitor to show that their experience and knowledge is just as valuable as that of an expert. In doing so, this personalises the tour to better consolidate any learning that occurs within a positive framework for future museum experiences. In this way, pressure is alleviated from the guide who may not know everything about every object and the visitor can actively participate in a meaningful discussion that is more likely to be retained and foster return visits to museums in the future.




Although I find it a bit disappointing that I cannot share everything I have learned about Reflections of Asia during these tours, it keeps the visitor engaged and less likely to experience visitor fatigue. I also thoroughly enjoy chatting with visitors at their own pace who can often teach me a lot more about these places and cultures, often having visited and lived in Asia for many years. This way, I do not simply repeat the same tour and information every time but there is always something different or new depending on the visitors. I strongly encourage all readers to visit of Reflections of Asia, seek me or one of the other volunteers out, and take one of the tours, run daily at 11am.

Thank you Ziggy for contributing such an insightful post! It was great reading about the exhibition from both a visitor’s perspective and that of a volunteer. Reflections of Asia is on display at the Powerhouse Museum until December 2019.

Cover Photograph Courtsey of the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences.

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