On Wednesday, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will close most of its galleries of Chinese art and objects in preparation for the first major refurbishment of those spaces in at least a half-century.

Actually, no one can immediately say precisely how long it's been.

"It's been a while," said museum director Timothy Rub on a recent stroll through the galleries, which were not even finished when the museum first opened in 1928.

"Money had become very scarce after 1929," Rub continued. "The ambition not only to build the museum out quickly inside but also to furnish it in a certain way, those had to be scaled back."

Depression and world war will do that.

Curator Hiromi Kinoshita and director Timothy Rub look at a case containing ceramic from the Tang Dynasty.
Curator Hiromi Kinoshita and director Timothy Rub look at a case containing ceramic from the Tang Dynasty.

But the old, not to say dreary, presentation underscores what museum officials refer to as the "underappreciated" nature of the museum's holdings of 7,000 Chinese artworks and artifacts, including unique imperial robes, not even exhibited because of inhospitable lighting condition in the galleries.

Rub pointed out the painted concrete floors, very different from the stone floors of the museum's initial galleries. The lighting, said Rub, is "antiquarian," unchanged for 50-odd years.

The old display cases — housing everything from an ancient earthenware jar with sweeping painted decoration (nearly 5,000 years old) to hundreds of tiny, intricate snuff bottles, a favorite imperial gift from the 18th century on — are at best timelessly functional; at worst, they are dim and cramped.

Where ‘timeless’ meets ‘time to refresh’

Hiromi Kinoshita, the museum's associate curator of Chinese art, remembers seeing those very display cases in a 1940 Time-Life photo spread of the newly opened Asian wing of the museum.

"You can recognize certain galleries and certain case work as well," she said.

Long past time for changes, said Rub.

The galleries close to the public at the end of the day Tuesday. When they reopen in early 2019 following the $2 million renovation, not only will they have a new look — similar to the look of the nearby South Asian galleries, which reopened after renovation in October 2016 — they will also feature a re-imagined narrative.

PMA director Timothy Rub and curator Hiromi Kinoshita discuss “Guanyin, Bodhisattva of Compassion” from the 14th century.
PMA director Timothy Rub and curator Hiromi Kinoshita discuss “Guanyin, Bodhisattva of Compassion” from the 14th century.

Kinoshita, who joined the museum in 2012, has been intensively examining the collection. She has decided to forgo a largely chronological approach to the art when reinstalled in favor of a more thematic presentation.

Objects and art will be organized around four key themes that are critically important to understanding Chinese culture: "The Afterlife: Tombs and Immortality," "Fascination With Nature: Expressing the Self Through Art," "Exchange and Globalization: China and the West," and "Ordering the Universe: The Imperial Court."

"What I really want to try and achieve is to have these broad, overarching themes that are core cultural practices and artistic ideas that were unique to China, yet are universal enough that any human being can relate to," she said.

An arts ‘oops’ for the ages

The renovation and gallery closure also provides an opportunity to conserve numerous objects in need.

For instance, one of the collection's great earthenware camels (the collection is very rich in camel and horse representations, testimony to long, rich trade along the Silk Road) was whisked off to conservation months ago where it was discovered that the 1,000-year-old figure had been broken to pieces at some point and glued back together.

"It actually has a different foot belonging to another camel," Kinoshita said. "You can actually see it because it's a different glaze. Obviously, when it was put back together, someone put another foot there."

The Buddha’s X-ray surprise

Conservation of a late 16th-century figure of a disciple of Buddha whose painted surfaces were flaking away led to another, even more unusual discovery.

The figure has a spiritual as well as an aesthetic power, Kinoshita noted.

"It's not just sculpture for beauty's sake," said Kinoshita. "It had a purpose. These were religious figures, so in order to 'activate' them — make them real — they were always enshrined with some sort of [embedded] relic, and when we were doing the conservation to stabilize the pigment, we did an X-ray and found relics of some sort enshrined in the center part" of the figure."

After debating what to do, she said, they decided to leave the relic — probably some sort of mirror — in place.

"I think we all agreed we didn't want to deconsecrate a religious object," she said.

Imperial robes in the limelight

Kinoshita and Rub discuss the lighting changes to come.
Kinoshita and Rub discuss the lighting changes to come.

The changes to the China galleries will echo changes in the South Asian galleries next door. The concrete floor will be replaced. Lighting will be radically reconfigured. Some windows will be unshrouded to allow visitors to see out over the museum's east terrace, a dramatic second-floor view; other windows will be blocked to allow exhibition of light-sensitive textiles and paintings.

For the first time, the museum's unique collection of Chinese textiles, including rarely seen imperial robes, will be on view, as well as paintings, scrolls and other light-sensitive materials.

The three most dramatic rooms of the Chinese galleries will remain open throughout the project. These are the 18th-century Scholar's Study, with its lacquered panels and silk-covered latticework; the 15th-century Coffered Ceiling From the Temple of Transforming Wisdom, which looks down on an array of Buddhist and Chinese architectural and artistic elements; and the delicately monumental 17th-century Reception Hall From the Palace of Duke Zhao.

"The reception hall and the other two interiors, they were all bought in the late 1920s, but the reception hall was not installed until the 1930s and the temple ceiling wasn't installed until the 1950s because that section [of the museum interior] was not built until later," said Kinoshita.

"They have an enormously evocative power," said Rub, adding that should funds become available, there will be an upgrade of lighting in the reception hall at the least.

Kinoshita's intensive collection research is also leading to publication of the first book on the museum's Chinese collection, which Rub and Kinoshita both regard as not as well known as it should be. Chinese Art: Highlights From the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with an introductory essay by Kinoshita, will be issued at the time the galleries reopen next year.

PMA director Rub and curator Kinoshita discuss a bodhisattva in the museum’s Chinese galleries.
PMA director Rub and curator Kinoshita discuss a bodhisattva in the museum’s Chinese galleries.

The museum is also reworking its educational programming to expand and enliven the gallery experience.

Researching the collection, learning about what was here, finding unusual things in storage that the museum was only vaguely aware it had — all attracted Kinoshita to come to Philadelphia in the first place.

"It is always fun to learn new things and to see if you might be able to find something interesting — the opportunity presented itself and to work on a collection that wasn't well known and to be able to research it, that is what attracted me," Kinoshita said.