Fellows and their Research

Jungeun Lee on the narrative of display

Gentleman Viewing Plum Blossoms, hanging scroll, Yuan Dynasty, 14th century, ink and colour on silk, The Okayama Prefectural
Museum of Art

I came as a Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellowship to the Sainsbury Institute immediately after completing my doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh in spring 2017. Here, I have been able to focus on writing a book manuscript and articles while sharing my research with Japanese specialists and scholars in the UK.

My interest is in the collecting of paintings and art objects as well as their display in specific spatial settings, which has a rich history and is an attractive topic for many art historians. The aesthetics of display played a profound role on defining strategic spaces including medieval imperial palaces, elite residences, and contemporary museum spaces. My research focuses on the Ashikaga collection, their development and function, and the multifaceted meanings of formal decoration and display in premodern Japan.

Avid patrons of the arts, the Ashikaga shoguns were especially known for their collections of Chinese paintings, ceramics, and bronzes, which they displayed both for their own enjoyment and for entertaining eminent guests who paid visits to their palaces. They also commissioned illustrated manuscripts that inventoried and gave instructions for the proper display of their collections. The elaborate display of luxurious imported Chinese objects and paintings in medieval Japanese shogunal palaces and residences had a unique history of development due to the relationship between collecting and the complicated power structure in Kyoto.

Based on my research, I have proposed that the elaborate nature of displays fostered the development of a new architectural structure and provided a model for the dissemination of such displays among patrons in later periods more broadly. By approaching display as an ensemble and a means of representing patrons’ identities, my research explores the significance of elaborate formal display through an integrated and synthesized approach that combines the Ashikaga collection of Chinese paintings and objects as well as their arrangement within buildings specially constructed for their display within the political and economic spheres of Kyoto.

Detail of Kundaikan sōchōki, handscroll, Muromachi period, 1560, National Museum of Japanese History

Over the past eight months, Norwich has provided a nourishing environment for me to start building my career as an art historian. I have treasured my space in the Cathedral complex, where I was able to pursue new insights and break new ground. After eight years in the US, moving to this vibrant academic and cultural atmosphere in the UK fuelled me with inspiration for my research on the material and visual culture of premodern Japan and facilitated my growth as an art historian.

One of the most exciting aspects of my time here has been the opportunity to share my research with Japanese specialists. As part of my fellowship, I was invited to give a talk in February called “Collecting China, Displaying Authority: Formal Display during Imperial Visits to Ashikaga Shoguns” at Cambridge University. Attendees to the talk were mostly premodern Japanese historians and literature specialists, not art historians, and I was able to gather critical comments and questions from the audience, which made me to consider the topic in broader contexts.

From the international symposium “Display as Ensemble”

I also organised the international symposium “Display as Ensemble: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Display in Premodern Japan,” held on June 15 at the Institute. This brought together scholars from the fields of Japanese history, art history, architectural history, and religious studies to explore new directions for the critical studies of spatial and interior displays from an interdisciplinary and comparative perspective. I am grateful to the cooperative efforts of distinguished scholars and support from the Institute staff to bring this event to fruition.

Furthermore, I look forward to presenting on June 21, as part of the Third Thursday Lecture series. A talk entitled “The Sinan Shipwreck and Material Culture of Maritime Trade in Medieval Japan” will share my recent research on various items recovered from the wreck that will shed light on the material culture of maritime trade between China and Japan. I welcome all to attend and look forward to meeting you.


Jungeun Lee
Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellow, 2017-2018