The exhibition “Harold in China, 1932-1939: Photographs from the Acton Collection” originated from a research project I undertook in the photograph archive at Villa La Pietra, New York University Florence, during my academic year in Florence in 2017/18. The photo archive preserves more than 17,000 photographs from late 19th century to 1994 chronicling the lives of the Acton family. In the archive there are more than 200 photographs from Harold Acton’s time in China, and there were the focus of my research.
During the 1930s Harold Acton travelled around Asia and spent about 7 years in China, mostly in Peking. Alta Macadam, the photo archivist at Villa La Pietra, helped me go through the photographs related to Harold’s experience in China. After seeing all the historical prints, I was amazed by their uniqueness, variety and quality. The 1930s were a crucial period in Chinese modern history, when rapid modernization, especially in the education system, was driven by the “New Culture Movement” (1915 – ca. 1949). This movement is characterized by the promotion of language reform (the use of simplified Chinese) and the promotion of cultural communication with the West. The Acton photographs are an insight to this period, reflecting the prevalent cultural communication between China and the West, through the eyes of a westerner.
In order to inform an audience who is not familiar with Chinese modern history of the significance of these images, much contextualization work had to be done to put the photographs in their original contexts. This contextualization work required the understanding of both Chinese and western cultures, so that it could fill the gap between the two cultures and be understood from the position of the West.
The research for the exhibition was not only carried out by consulting documents, books, articles, and research papers written both in Chinese and English, but also through on-site research that I conducted in Beijing.
I divided the exhibition into four parts: Harold Acton’s home, Harold Acton’s Life in Peking, The Peking Opera, and Places and Architectures Visited by Harold Acton. These four sections encompass different aspects of Harold Acton’s life in Peking. The significance of the people or the events shown in the photographs is conveyed through museum tags, some of which have extensive explanations that help to better contextualize the photographs. All photographs are exhibited with their verso visible, in order to show Harold’s frequent annotations, or other friends’ comments. These allow us to identify and better understand the people with whom Harold interacted and the places he frequented.
The property of NYU Florence was donated by Harold Acton in 1994 under the purpose of making it a place for cultural and intellectual communication. What he accomplished years before, as documented by these selected photographs, parallels with the current mission of NYU Florence in promoting cultural exchange between China and the West, during the modern period in which these cultural communications were increasing.
I would like to pay much gratitude to Ellyn Toscano, the Director of NYU Florence, and Julie Mostov, the Dean of Liberal Studies at New York University, for their support that made the research project and the exhibition project possible. Much appreciation paid to the team at Villa La Pietra: Francesca Baldry, the Collection Manager, for coordinating all the aspects of the exhibition and event set-ups; Cristina Fantacci Cellini for coordinating the events and the graphic designs, Stefano Pasolini for the exhibition installation; Claudia Beyer and Costanza Perrone Da Zara for the installation of the Qing Dynasty Imperial Official Robe; Scott Palmer for the website design. Special thanks to Alta Macadam for the editorial work, Cristina Bellini for the research support, and to Fall 2018 NYU students Ana Alvarez, Ariel Fishman, Michael Lee, and Sofia Martinez for their contribution to the project.