History enthusiasts pull up a chair at Heritage Museum exhibition exploring the role of seating as a cultural artefact
Originally published at the South China Morning Post on June 22, 2014.
Slightly faded and elegantly curved, the wooden stool appears small and unassuming - for a 3,000-year-old relic from ancient Egypt, that is.
"Tutankhamen's tomb had one almost identical, [but] it's broken," said Naomi Szeto, Hong Kong Heritage Museum curator. "It's in fantastic condition."
On loan from the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the stool is the oldest of 100 or so chairs on display at The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: Chairs for Viewing the World through Time, an exhibition at the museum in Sha Tin which opened on June 7.
Featuring chairs from nine leading museums around the world, the exhibition explores the role of chairs as cultural artefacts. It is part of a larger event on the theme of chairs at the museum called Please Have a Seat.
Visitors can learn about the artistic and practical uses of chairs in civilisations throughout history and how people interacted with one another, as well as their values and traditions.
"In the past 10 hours, is there anyone who hasn't sat down in a chair?" asked Szeto, who came up with the idea for the exhibition. "We don't realise it, but we are in contact with chairs all the time."
Although Szeto admitted to not possessing a particular fascination with chairs, her passion for social history led her to come up with the idea for the show two years ago. "I always put everyday objects in [their] cultural and social context," Szeto said.
"I am not crazy about chairs, but this is not a furniture design exhibition. I'm using chairs as a means to talk about culture."
Hand-picked by Szeto, the chairs - originating from anywhere from Rome to Africa - had to be carefully transported to ensure they remain in good condition. "It took a while … because these objects are all from different places," Szeto said.
Spread out across the spacious exhibition hall, they are arranged under various themes, including symbols of authority, religious rituals, and evolution.
A black lacquered folding chair that the emperor Qianlong used when sitting in the royal garden is one of those under the theme symbols of authority. Dragons, which represent royalty, are featured on the rear of the throne and its armrests. On the back of the chair is a carving depicting five mountains adorned with waves and clouds. To Taoists, this represents the five sacred mountains of China and is thought to reverse bad fortune.
The exhibition also features chairs from Hong Kong, such as a bamboo baby seat that belonged to a rural family in the 1950s.
The Tang clan, from the New Territories, used to place babies on the seat when they were 100 days old to symbolise that they would live to be 100 years old.
Other highlights include Queen Victoria's armchair, a chair from an inn where Shakespeare supposedly took part in a drinking contest, and a chair made out of antlers from emperor Kangxi's hunting trips.
"I came [to the exhibition] because it looked interesting," said Li Yi Chian, a 20-year-old student from Singapore. "You don't realise that the things you use in daily life have so much history."
The exhibition opens every day except Tuesdays until September 15. Adult admission is HK$20, with discounts available.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: History enthusiasts pull up a chair