Exploring the British Museum (He Yulei, China, ITP 2023)

Written by He Yulei, Section Chief, International Cooperation and Exchange Office, Dunhuang Academy (China, ITP 2023)

Hello! My name is He Yulei, I come from the Dunhuang Academy, China, where I’ve worked for 16 years. My job is relevant to the international promotion of Dunhuang culture at the Mogao Caves, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. I am very happy and excited to have this special opportunity to visit London and to learn from the professionals of the British Museum together with colleagues from all over the world. Here, I met Ciprian, a Roman soldier, Kayla, an artist who makes beautiful baskets, and my group of pals Ninh and Gao Rui, who are always energetic and happy to share their interesting findings in the museum. Rucha is a smart student who asks so many questions along the way, and Malissa who is from Malaysia, loves ancient Egyptian collections just as much as I do.

Half of the 2023 ITP cohort at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge

Like others, I also remember the first day at Schafer House where I received a pack of stuff after being welcomed by George and Amelia, including a course book over 100 pages and other relevant paper materials to help attendees learn about the ITP curriculum. We also received details and guidance for daily life, such as how to connect to Wi-Fi, to how to take public transport, from tracing the nearest supermarkets, to locating the most popular exhibitions and shopping streets in London. It couldn’t be more thoughtful and considerate. 

Half a month has gone so quick, now we are getting used to the fast paced life of London. Every day we have a full schedule of studies, from collection management, conservation, curation, interpretation, public education, archaeology, storage, and the collections themselves.

2023 ITP fellows (L-R) He Yulei, Kayla Annen, and Dina Gohar

The session design and the selected lecturers are extraordinary. Our group is assigned to the Asia department where we got a chance to meet Jessica, Alexandra, and all other members in the department. Then we were introduced to our Object in Focus object, a Bencharong from 18th Century China. We spend our time studying individually, but also have group discussions and studies, discussing ideas for the design of the project. It is a challenging, but enjoyable process, and is an insight in to the daily work at the BM.

Manager of the ITP programme, Claire Messenger, encourages everybody to explore more, not just at the BM, but all of the museums and historical sites in London. The experience here indeed has inspired me to develop my skills, to broaden my horizons and to enlighten my imagination for the future work in my own institution.

Needless to say, the collections of the British Museum are so stunning. Every day when I enter the Great Court it’s like I am walking into a wonderland. I visited different galleries and found objects with stories behind them that touched my heart so deeply, this memory will be unforgettable for the rest of my life.

Photograph of a child's hat, jacket, trousers and shoes in the Baijiayi tradition.

But there is one set of a child’s hat, jacket, trousers and shoes in the China’s Hidden Century exhibition that impressed me the most. The jacket and trousers are called Baijiayi in Chinese. In ancient China, in order to pray for a child’s healthy growth with no disease and disaster, mothers begged for clothes pieces from neighbouring families, tailored them into small square pieces, matched the colors and stitched them together with embroidery skills. This mother was quite smart to arrange the square pieces in a 3D effect. Isn’t the pattern like a Rubik’s cube? The hat was designed in the shape of Qilin, an auspicious creature from Chinese myth that blesses children to live in peace and longevity. And the pair of shoes, embroidered with tiger heads, is pronounced Hu, which also bears the meaning of ‘to be wealthy and to be protected’ in Chinese. Baijiayi is a tradition even kept in some places of China today. And this superb display makes me see the endless love of a mother to her child dating back to 200 years ago.