By Meredith Martin & Julie Park
In Fall 2021, art history professor Meredith Martin taught a graduate seminar at the Institute of Fine Arts entitled “Chinoiserie in European Art and Performance.” The course explored the phenomenon of chinoiserie (a global decorative style inspired by images, materials, and ideas of China) in early modern Europe. The plan was to conduct multiple offsite visits to New York area museums to study their rich collections of chinoiserie firsthand, but this proved difficult owing to the pandemic. Fortunately, materials at NYU Libraries, notably the Fales Collection’s trove of early modern illustrated accounts of East Asia, were still accessible to the class. These materials—including an early work of science fiction, travel literature and embassy reports, a garden treatise, and children’s books—comprise most of the items in this virtual exhibition.
Bequeathed to NYU between 1957 and 1966 by DeCoursey Fales in memory of his father, Haliburton Fales, the Fales Collection centers on the history of the English novel. Early travel narratives became part of the collection because they offer valuable information about the cultural contexts in which imaginative prose writing in English developed from the eighteenth century to today. Connecting the Fales Collection to the chinoiserie seminar and to its students, who each selected a book to research and write about over the course of the semester, provided a valuable opportunity for allowing the multidisciplinary range of these holdings to emerge. It also allowed the class to discover that ideas and fantasies about China were more prevalent in European culture than one might originally assume.
Serendipitously, for the past two and a half years Julie Park, a scholar of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England working at the crossroads of literary studies and material and visual culture, has served as Assistant Curator/Faculty Fellow at the Bobst Library’s Special Collections Center, where the Fales Collection is housed. She and Meredith got together to conceive this exhibition and design a seminar session devoted both to the history of European accounts of East Asia and to the hands-on joy of engaging with rare books and writing a catalogue entry label. Overall, the students did an excellent job with their assignments, which included learning how to utilize the Manifold online platform. We are grateful to Jojo Karlin, a literary scholar and NYU’s Digital Scholarship Specialist, for instructing the class on the intricacies of Manifold; to Noelle Barr, who, as the seminar’s student course assistant, contributed to the exhibition and assisted in site creation and design; and to Charlotte Priddle, Director of NYU Special Collections, for helping us locate items.