Methods in understanding collaboration
Thank you so much for your question about methods, which is a really interesting one for me in terms of the Craft China: (Re)making ethnic heritage in China’s creative economy because of the different disciplinary genres the project spans. Working with the Chinese National Museum of Ethnology means that the project is rooted in ethnography and so when we began participant observation was our main method. Along with this, I also brought my previous research into museum design and exhibition narratives, some of which has been undertaken in collaboration with fellow conference delegate Jona Piehl, has typically utilised a critical reading of the museum space in the narratological tradition of Mieke Bal.
What’s interesting for me about the example in our case study is that it’s the designers themselves, Jenny from Atlas, who have done something closer to the long term ethnographic fieldwork spending years in the Dong ethnic minority village to build up a relation. This kind of in-depth ethnographic research is something that Li and I were supposed to be doing as part of our research. However, Covid-19 has meant that for the second half of the project we’ve been based in the UK.
As a result, we’ve had to shift our methodology to an online ethnography following the exhibition planning as it unfolds in online meetings. In some sense this has its benefits as you can easily sit in on meetings during the exhibition planning process on TenCent, the Chinese equivalent of Zoom, and be quite unobtrusive.
Thankfully we were able to attend the exhibition Tradition@Present Jenny spoke of earlier and walk around with the curator Luo Pan constructing the same kind of first-person critical reading of the narrative space that we would usually undertake. However, coming from an interpretation background my critical reading is necessarily subjectively attuned to the textual (even if this is in Chinese) and object qualities of the exhibition.
What is interesting I think is that our interviews with the designers grew out of our interviews with the craft makers themselves. I’m not an anthropologist, so the long form ethnographic interview has its own peculiarities as can be witnessed here in Alan Macfarlane’s series of interviews with his fellow anthropologists.
What was also important I feel was that prior to the online interview we’d visited the exhibition and the commercial shop Klee Klee in which many of the products created from the Dali project were stocked. Possessing a cushion created by the Dong women in collaboration with Jenny and the Atlas Designers gave a tangible quality to the interview as were separated by timeszones. In this way, it related to Helen Chatterjee’s work on how physical objects allow us to narrate and articulate the world around.
Thank you again for your question.