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A new guqin instrument, crafted following traditional guqin-making procedures, by Siqi Fu, Beijing.
I have always known I wanted to earn a PhD in the Preservation Studies Program (PSP) at the University of Delaware (UD). Ten years ago, Art Conservation and Historic Preservation were still somewhat “unknown" disciplines in China. A coincidence brought me to a short course on cross-section microscopy in the CRAFT workshop, which was co-sponsored by the World Monuments Fund, New York, and the Palace Museum, Beijing. The course was taught by Dr. Susan Buck, a distinguished PSP doctoral graduate and now a member of my dissertation committee. My first peek at the brilliant azurite, vermilion, and gold layers through the microscopic oculars was an incredible and life-changing moment for me. As a master's student in architecture at that time, I found myself already having more interest in academic research than architectural design. Susan's lectures introduced us to a brand new field integrating art, science, and history, which was exactly what I had been looking for. The interdisciplinary methodology, a highlight of PSP, has also shaped my comprehension of cultural heritage ever since.
Determined to pursue the career path of conservation/preservation, I gradually re-oriented to historic preservation and Chinese lacquer studies. In 2013, I finished my master's degree on red and gold lacquer painted marriage beds, a type of Chinese vernacular furniture, at the University of Tsinghua, China. Then, I continued my education in the European Erasmus Mundus master programs in Archaeological Materials Science. In order to strengthen my chemistry knowledge, my second master's thesis focused on material characterization and art technical analysis of two lacquered architectural decorations from the Qianlong Garden, the Forbidden City. In the process I developed a deep love for, and bond to, Chinese lacquer art and encountered my PhD subject matter, guqin (古琴), a plucked musical instrument with thick lacquer-based surface coatings.
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Aidi capturing a UVL photo of a historical guqin in Shanghai.
Just as wrinkles grow on our faces, craquelure (a network of cracks) appears naturally on the lacquered skin of aged guqin. However, instead of being considered ugly and defective, guqin's craquelure is sought after as an example of beauty and a sign of authenticity by the traditional Chinese gentry-literati class. When their instruments are functional objects, players and owners want to use, maintain, and repair their guqin. As a collectible artwork, on the other hand, the instrument and its craquelure also bear great historical, aesthetic, and cultural values. So, how should we interpret and balance this complicated set of values? How should we conserve the cracked lacquer surface of historical guqin in the context of global collecting?
My dissertation seeks to answer these questions by combining art conservation with scientific analysis and material cultural history. My project involves studies of guqin's coating materials and crack-forming mechanisms in addition to critical thinking about the value of the craquelure and choices about the conservation treatments. I feel that the Preservation Studies Program at the University of Delaware is the best place to carry out such ambitious work. The interdisciplinary structure, flexible and supportive environment, and strong connections with alumni and institutions across the country have allowed me to take courses, absorb many approaches, and broaden my horizons in different subjects.
Aidi interviewing a guqin maker at the National Academy of Arts, Beijing, in September 2019.
I read and discussed aesthetics and the philosophy of “beauty" in Dr. Vimalin Rujivacharakul's seminar class in the Department of Art History. I learned about ethnomusicology and organology from Dr. Sunmin Yoon in the Department of Music. I practiced technical study of lacquered objects with Dr. Rosie Grayburn and Catherine Matsen in the Science Research and Analysis Laboratory (SRAL) at the Winterthur Museum. I benefited from the lectures on material culture, art history, and conservation both on the UD campus and at Winterthur. The UD and Winterthur's first-class labs and advanced facilities also enabled me to include and use X-ray micro-computed tomography (micro-CT), MALDI time-of-flight mass spectroscopy (MALDI-ToF-MS), artificial aging equipment, and more to explore the materials and crafts of guqin's surface coatings. Although research and fieldwork became difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic, I was still able to connect with conservators and curators at the Freer and Sackler Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Getty Conservation Institute, with the help and introduction of my advisors. My esteemed committee members have been doing their best to advise me through many means, including countless long emails and video chats.
During the past three years, I completed my coursework, passed my qualifying exams, and presented my dissertation proposal in April 2021, titled “Re-invention of guqin's craquelure: the making, collecting, and conserving of qin in the late Ming China, 1500-1700." In addition, during my extensive fieldwork in China last year, I visited museums and private collections, interviewed guqin collectors, conservators, and makers, prepared lacquer panel mockups, acquired standard digital and reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) photos, and collected coating samples of historical guqin instruments. With all these materials and input, I am eager to return to the UD campus and start the next phase of my project in August 2021. I look forward to visiting the guqin collections in more American museums and working with more experts and professionals in the coming fall semester.
Aidi capturing highlight RTI photos of the historical guqin Songfeng (松風, pine breeze) at the Three Gorges Museum, Chongqing, in May 2021.
My PhD journey so far has been exciting and rewarding, yet full of ups and downs too. It was not easy for a Chinese student and mom to concentrate on academic research while the US went through politics, a pandemic, and attendant lockdowns. Nevertheless, the generous support and genuine care shown by my committee, colleagues, and friends have made me feel loved, protected, and optimistic again. With the PSP resources and mentorship, I am confident that the project will contribute to the historical information and material data of guqin-making, and inform the conservation of historical guqin and lacquered museum artifacts in general. While progressing through my candidacy, I hope to present my findings about guqin's craquelure in conferences and share the beauty and philosophy with the broader public. The more we know about the other cultures, the more sympathy we will have for the people on the other side of the earth. There is always a common ground to be found in arts. After all, that is the origin of my passion for Preservation Studies.
— PSP doctoral candidate Aidi Bao