Top 10 Silk Road Theme Exhibitions of 2019

For centuries, the supremely fascinating and complex field of Silk Road studies has consumed scholars, culture travellers and heritage lovers in China, Asia, Europe, and North America.

Silk Road theme exhibitions seem to have been all the rage throughout Asia and Europe, in 2019. The subjects explored in these museum shows range from the Palaeolithic era to the 18th century AD, from Bukhara to Mongolia, from the Taklamakan Desert to the south China Sea. They cover overland trade & trading settlements, nomadic societies, and maritime silk roads.

The show includes sumptuous treasures of precious metal and silk, seemingly ephemeral snapshots of individual rich objects that tell intimate human stories, as well as those embodying grand narratives.

In the “Annual Report of Silk Road Cultural Heritage 2019”, eight international experts were invited to review and comment on the exhibitions exploring aspects of Silk Roads histories. Here are their Top 10 choices:

1. The Maritime Secrets Revealed from Ancient Ships, Vietnam National History Museum

Blue and white glazed ceramic vases found from the Cà Mau shipwreck. (VNS Ph. Minh Thu)

“The Maritime Secrets Revealed from Ancient Ships” displays more than 500 objects collected from shipwrecks in Vietnamese territorial waters, between the 15th and 18th centuries. The exhibition presents the “Vietnam narrative” in the historical context of the Maritime Silk Road, showing the importance of Vietnam in maritime trade. The objects on display are both traditional Chinese and European, reflecting the exchange of Chinese and Western cultures through trade along the Maritime Silk Road.

2. Return from the East: Silk, Spices and Precious Stones, Nantes Museum, France (Retour d’Orient. Soie, épices et pierres précieuses)

The exhibition at the Nantes Museum showcases the maritime trade of silk, tea, spices, gems and diamonds from Southeast Asia to Africa, recreating the history of the “Jadeite and Gem Road” or “Spice Road”. Objects from Burma, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Egypt are included in the show.

3. Exhibition of Treasures from National Museums along the Silk Road, National Museum of China

The hugely popular exhibition at the National Museum of China brought together 234 historical objects from 13 countries which tell the story of the ongoing dialogue among cultures along the Silk Road. The show is hailed as the first large-scale exhibition of its kind among countries of the Silk Road.

Reflecting the experiences of those traveling along the Silk Road, in this exhibition, the very institution of the museum plays a critical role in strengthening cultural exchanges. The museum exhibition, like the historic network, also serves as a platform for our understanding of historic migration; religious, economic and trade exchanges; science and technology of communication; culture and art of mutual influence, etc.

4. The Route of the Sea: Nanhai Shipwreck Maritime Trade in the Southern Song Dynasty, Guangdong Provincial Museum, China

The discovery and excavation of “Nanhai I” Shipwreck has gone through a long process. For the first time, the exhibition presents the complete excavation processes and discoveries of different institutions to the public. 

The Nanhai No. 1 shipwreck (30m long and 10m wide) was discovered 25m under the sea in 1987. It is believed to have been built between 1127 and 1279 AD during the reign of the Southern Song Dynasty.

After its recovery in 2007, the wreck of Nanhai No. 1 is now preserved in the Guangdong Maritime Silk Road Museum, where it has been placed in an aquarium. Excavations in this semi-submerged aquarium environment are now ongoing and some 60,000 pieces, primarily porcelains from the Jingdezhen kiln, Dehua kiln, Cizao kiln and Longquan kiln, wood wares, iron wares, copper coins, copper rings and lacquer chips have already been recovered.

5. Return to BUKHARA: Historical and Cultural Heritage Found in the Tombs of General An Pu and His Friend During the Reign of the Tang Dynasty, National History Museum, Uzbekistan

A tri-colored camel, a glazed pottery from An Pu’s tomb of the Tang Dynasty, at Luoyang Museum in Luoyang, central China’s Henan Province. (Xinhua/Li An)

Return to BUKHARA is an important collaborative project between the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Uzbekistan, the State Museum of History of Uzbekistan, and the Museum of the City of Luoyan, in Henan Province, China. Some 75 archaeological objects found in the tomb of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) General An Pu and his wife highlight centuries-old history of cultural exchanges between China and Uzbekistan.

Ph. Roman gold coin discovered in An Pu’s tomb of the Tang Dynasty at Luoyang Museum in Luoyang, central China’s Henan Province. (Xinhua)

6. Life Along the Silk Road: Little Stories During the Great Era, China National Silk Museum

Life along the Silk Road: 13 Stories during the Great Era is organized in cooperation with a number of institutions including the State Hermitage Museum, Russia, the Institute of Archaeology of Xinjiang, and Dunhuang Research Academy.

Through the accounts of 13 individuals from its history, the exhibition tells a comprehensive story of the Silk Roads including the Steppe Silk Road, the Oasis Silk Road and the Maritime Silk Road. It provides an overview of people’s daily lives on these routes and explores the history of the cultural exchanges between East and West that took place along them.  

7. Cultural Exchanges Along the Silk Road: Art Treasures from the Tubo Period, Dunhuang Research Institute, China

“Cultural Exchange Along the Silk Road: Masterpieces of the Tubo Period (7th–9th Century)” is co-organized by the Dunhuang Academy in Gansu Province – one of China’s premier centers for the study of the Silk Road – and the Pritzker Art Collaborative. 

The exhibition of 120 artifacts from the Imperial Tibetan period (612–842) is comprised mostly of objects from the collection of Margot and Thomas J. Pritzker and from the Bern-based foundation Abegg-Stiftung. In addition, 22 Chinese museums and six international institutions (including the Art Institute of Chicago, Moscow’s Hermitage Museum, and the Qatari royal family’s Al Thani Collection) contributed objects to the show. 

8. Silk Road Cities, Leiden University, Netherlands

Silk Road Cities features Islamic architectural monuments (mosques, madrasas, mausoleums) in major urban centres along the Silk Roads. Special focus is on the cities of Herat (Afghanistan), Mashhad and Sultaniyya (Iran), Turkestan (Kazakhstan), Marv and Anau (Turkmenistan), Samarqand, Bukhara and Shahr-i Sabz (Uzbekistan).

9. Fusion of Color: A Special Exhibition on the Civilizations of the Silk Road, Sackler Museum of Archaeology and Art, Peking University, China

“Yingpan Man,” Yingpan Cemetery, Weili County, Bayinguoleng Mongolian Autonomous Prefecture

This Peking University show brings together 70 precious cultural relics from 11 museums. The exhibition explores the two-way cultural influence between Xinjiang and the Silk Road.

According to the project’s curator Chen Ling, Xinjiang was not only the first stop for foreigners entering China, but also contributed to the formation of Chinese culture in terms of material, technology and culture. It was also one of the sources of the formation of Chinese civilization. At the same time, Xinjiang was the bridgehead of the outward spread of Chinese civilization and the core area of the whole Silk Road.

10. Golden Horde: The Cradle of Kazakh Statehood, Central National Museum, Kazakhstan

The Cradle of Kazakh Statehood presents an archaeological story of the Golden Horde – the settled Mongols who ruled over Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Moldova, and the Caucasus from the 1240’s until 1502. Various thematic sections in the show, such as “Religions: Tengrism, Islam, Nestorianism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism,” greatly enhance our understanding of the importance of the Silk Road as a network that facilitated exchange of ideas, as well goods, among the people of the region.