A tale of significance: The confused porcelain

Lucie Altenburg

Once upon a time, on one fateful afternoon, we were asked to choose our first object for treatment. I immediately spotted a small porcelain figurine broken in two at the midriff. It appeared to be a Japanese woman in an ornate and gilded kimono and holding a fan, which would suggest a dancer. It was one of those “Aha!” moments: that Asiatic looking young lady “sang” to me.

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The Japanese figurine studied. Photograph by Lucie Altenburg

Objects, even when we know little to nothing about them, can be powerful engagers. What had actually happened was that, as a slightly atypical Japanese with a German surname, I felt compelled to choose this dainty but slightly sorry looking figurine because there was a link… Even before I started any sort of work on this object it already held significance for me.

Significance is a vital concept in 21st century conservation. It refers to the values and meanings that heritage objects hold for individuals and communities. These values and meanings determine the object’s ability to engage people, and people’s ability to connect and relate to the object. The aim of conservation is to retain, reveal or recover the cultural significance of an artefact. We do this not simply through the treatment of the object’s fabric, but also through the development of an understanding of its history and any meanings it may hold. In the MSc we learn to make significance a key focus in any treatment design. Our treatment proposals must include an assessment of significance that identifies the important elements of the object‘s fabric, history, and meaning.

So I set out to do this. The figurine was broken in half and heavily soiled, so that it was difficult to see some of the decorative patterns on the garment. After a preliminary visual examination, no manufacturing marks were observed, making it difficult to provenance and even date the figurine. It looked like the representation of an Asian lady, possibly a dancer, and the statement of significance was first written with this interpretation in mind.

But the more I looked at it, the more it bothered me. There was something very much off about the figurine, and this irked me to no end.

That’s when it hit me. Not literally. It is an inanimate object after all.

The way the hair was styled was completely wrong for a young woman, especially in a traditional kimono. It can clearly be seen in the pictures other Japanese porcelain figurines. That particular hairstyle was actually one that young men usually sported.

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Other Japanese figurines. Photograph from ebay.co.uk

The investigation deepened as I reached out to some relatives back in Japan, who confirmed that the hairstyle and in fact the short sleeved kimono suggested that this was a young man instead of a young woman. This new information would not change my proposal for the way the figurine is conserved or handled in this case, but it was revealing hitherto hidden values in the figurine, and enriched its capacity to engage. This underlines how important it is to fully understand the object being treated.

I finally had a stroke of luck. A virtually identical figurine online, was described as a Kabuki geisha. In Japan, we have a form of theatre called Kabuki. Traditionally men act out female roles and dress as such. As far as I know geishas are all women, since they are hostesses and entertain men. So the description may be wrong. However, it was the same stance, the same fan and kimono (just decorated differently), and the same puzzling hairstyle. Also, there was a manufacturer name. All this added to the understanding of the figurine and finally gave a potential provenance.


Detail of Kabuki performance. Photograph from seejapn.co.uk

At this point, my cousin, who is a traditional painter, got back at me saying she was 99% sure this was a man. She was puzzled by the way the bottom of the kimono folds to the sides, showing a rather dainty foot, a very effeminate trait. While the proper right arm shows a red under-garment, more of a male feature.

The figurine would have been a Kutani ware porcelain that towards the end of the nineteenth century, produced almost exclusively for import towards Europe. This meant that accurate depictions of the Japanese culture were not necessarily a priority; mostly the figurines had to be exotic and beautiful explaining the confusing mixture of male-female markers in the figurine. At this point, it becomes difficult to affirm what it is trying to represent.


Other Kutani figurines. Photograph from acientpoint.com

As conservators, we often achieve a degree of knowledge and intimacy with the object that few other heritage practitioners have. So far, the result of my work, even before I started on treating the problems with the object’s fabric, is that the figurine has regained some of its values. It is now more than it was when the treatment started, and has an interesting and engaging tale to tell. It has certainly increased its appeal and interest to me as I research and work on it.

So we all lived happily ever after. The end