Rare Chinese scroll unfurled at Penn Museum

Seven students gathered together looking at a painted Chinese scroll unrolled on a table.
Students in an art history course study objects each week at the Penn Museum, including a rare 200-year-old painted Chinese scroll. The course, History of Chinese Painting, is taught by Professor Nancy Steinhardt and grad student teaching assistant Chuanxin Weng (pictured center). 

Peering through magnifying glasses, students in Professor Nancy Steinhardt’s history of art course had the chance to closely examine a 200-year-old painted Chinese scroll last week, its 30-plus-feet length laid out across a line of tables at the Penn Museum.

“I think the thing that strikes me the most about this painting is the amount of color,” says sophomore Riley Wagner, a mathematical economics major from Downers Grove, Illinois. “Just a lot of life and detail.” 

It’s that attention to detail, seeing the original with their own eyes and not just a picture projected on a screen, that Steinhardt hopes will make a lasting impression. 

Students studying Chinese scroll unrolled on a series of tables.
The students, including senior Laure Ellis in the Wharton School (left), were able to look closely at the details in the painted scroll, measuring 30 feet long. 

“We make sure that Penn students get to see the real thing, and the Museum’s collection makes it possible,” Steinhardt says. “Anytime I teach any class I have the students in the Museum one day a week looking at objects. This is a unique experience. There is nowhere in the U.S., or maybe even in North America, that gives students this opportunity.”

Steinhart, who has been teaching at Penn for 37 years, is chair of the East Asian Languages and Civilizations Department in the School of Arts and Sciences, and also curator of Chinese art at the Museum. 

Steinhardt discovered the scroll about 20 years ago while going through Asian artifacts in Museum storage and since then has requested it be unrolled for her classes. “Nobody knew we had a version of the painting. So that was incredibly exciting when we found it,” she says. 

Professor speaking to two students while looking at the Chinese scroll.
Professor Nancy Steinhardt (left), a professor for 37 years, routinely asks the Penn Museum to display objects from storage for her students to examine. 

The painting is an 1825 reimagining of one of the most famous paintings of China, illustrating the bustling city of Kaifeng around the year 1100. Hundreds of scenes with thousands of details depict the Qingming Festival at the end of winter when people sweep the tombs of their ancestors. 

“Like the noodles hanging out to dry,” she says, directing the students’ attention to a small scene. “It’s the kind of thing that’s not in the slides that we show. It is interesting because it is daily life.”

The particular class is her History of Chinese Painting course, which has 19 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled. Other classes she teaches include East Asian Art and Civilizations and Arts of China, and all come to the Penn Museum to examine objects. 

But to have those objects under the eyes of undergraduates, the Museum has to be willing to take that risk. “The museum director has to be willing to insure the objects,” she says, and every director during her nearly four decades at Penn has agreed to do so. 

The Chinese scroll in the Penn Museum collection dates to 1825, a reimagining of one of the most famous paintings of China, of the bustling city of Kaifeng around the year 1100. Hundreds of scenes with thousands of details depict the Qingming Festival when people sweep the tombs of their ancestors. 

The course is also an opportunity for Steinhardt’s graduate student teaching assistants to become comfortable teaching with objects. “It is teaching the next generation of art historians,” she says. Chuanxin Weng, who is pursuing his Ph.D. in Chinese art history, taught last Friday’s class.

Other objects from Asia in the Museum collection studied by Steinhardt’s class this semester included bronzes, prints, textiles, and ceramics. 

“One of our many missions is as a teaching museum, and Penn works very hard to get our own students, and K-12 kids, into the Museum,” says Steinhardt. “We are a public museum at a private university, and we all have to take this mission very seriously.”