"Reinforcing Femininity: Exhibiting the Empress Dowager and Marie Antoinette in the 21st Century," by Liyi Chen


"Reinforcing Femininity: Exhibiting the Empress Dowager and Marie Antoinette in the 21st Century," by Liyi Chen

Life-size screen projection of a collection of black and white photographs of an empress dowager and a marble bust of a queen are two feature works in two exhibition: Power Play: China’s Empress Dowager in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington D.C. (September 24, 2011-January 29, 2012) and Royal Treasures from the Louvre: Louise XIV to Marie-Antoinette in the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (November 17, 2012 – March 31, 2013). How these very controversial royal women, who lived at the end of Imperial China and Monarchical France, were presented to the general public belies attitudes toward royalty and female leadership on the part of the curators?

Exhibiting infamous historical figures could be sensitive, even in domestic context, and the complexities add up when the exhibits take place in international context. Curators faced a challenge about how to present these historical women who were seen as fashionistas, as well as head strong and powerful political advocates for change. From the wording of titles, public releases and wall text, to the arrangement of objects, the overall perspective presented of these historical figures does not emphasize their power or authority as leaders, but rather their adherence to tradition. Such a strategy for presentation was not declared by the curators, but nonetheless is the result as I will show through my analysis of the exhibits.

The research consists of analyzing the exhibited objects singly and as a group as well as their presentation in the exhibit, analysis of the exhibition catalog and visitor feedback, and interviews with Curators including Mr. David Hugge, the Curator of “Power Play” and Head of Archives at Freer/Sackler Gallery and Martin Chapman, one curator of the “Royal Treasure” and Curator in charge of Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. My goal is to evaluate the curatorial approach and methodology that framed these two exhibits and to raise both the curators and public’s awareness while approaching historical artworks that embody controversial historical figures and eras.

For more information about Liyi, go here

  • HAAARCH!!! 2015
  • Undergraduate Work