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Students' Cultural Treasure Hunt Ends In Boston

Asst. Features Editor

Published: Saturday, December 21, 2013

Updated: Saturday, December 21, 2013 09:12

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Sam Costanzo / Heights Editor

Crated in a secluded and nondescript warehouse in Somerville stand what are arguably among China’s greatest cultural treasures: 80 magnificently painted and intricately carved pagodas.

Almost a century ago, orphans at the Tou Se We orphanage in what is now Shanghai carved the pagodas, which are replicas of actual buildings, for the 1915 Chicago World’s Fair. After that, however, the collected knowledge on these pagodas runs out. Very few people had heard about—much less seen—the carvings since then.

This past Wednesday, when most students were taking finals to prove what they already know, students in two Boston College courses discovered something new: the location of around 80 of these pagodas.

Related: The Origins Of The Cultural Treasure Hunt

After spending most of their semester tracking down the carvings, students in one of Rev. Jeremy Clarke, S.J.’s history classes and in one of Sheila Gallagher’s art classes got the opportunity to see the carvings in person.

Before this week, the students had only seen photos of the lost pagodas in a book that was published in 1932 to accompany the pagodas during exhibitions.

“It’s all been in black and white until now!” said Sam Zakowski, A&S ’16, as he moved from crate to crate examining the carvings.

When Clarke first announced the project, some students were skeptical that it would ever gain momentum, much less reach such a tangible conclusion.

“We’ve seen something almost no one’s seen, and because of this project a whole exhibit might happen,” said Mary Popio, A&S ’14.

While the students were thrilled to finally view the pagodas, Clarke, who thought up the project after visiting the Tou Se We orphanage over the summer, was especially interested in how they reached that point in the first place.

He challenged his class to use social media, web databases, and in-person interviews to find the pagodas. The class used a site called Media Kron to organize and share their research and photos with each other.

“It’s a way of testing Media Kron,” Clarke said of the project. “Our observations will be very helpful to modify and transform how we use media.”

Adeane Bregman, a BC art librarian who developed a research guide for the class and took part in the search herself, said that the project has completely changed the way she does her research.

“Google is not bad, but not everything is on Google,” she said. “The information is in the people. The best searches are searches for experts.”

The students found this especially true when Nancy Berliner, the curator of Chinese art at the Museum of Fine Arts, gave a guest lecture at BC.

Sarah Malaske, A&S ’14, said that when she and a few students met Berliner for lunch they asked if she had any information on the pagodas and were surprised to find that she knew their location—and Meeseen Loong, the Sotheby’s art dealer who brokered their sale from the Field Museum to a private dealer.

Negotiations to sell the collection to both the Tou Se We Museum and Peabody Essex Museum in Salem fell through, resulting in the eventual private sale.

Now that the project is over, Clarke and Loong hope to organize an exhibition of the carvings for their centennial in 2015.

Given that the orphans learned to carve under the direction of a Jesuit priest, Clarke expressed interest in hosting the exhibition at BC.

“We unfortunately have a paucity of display space at BC,” Clarke said. “For a Jesuit university that’s part of a tradition that supports aesthetic education, there’s no gallery space for smaller exhibitions.”

If BC proves an unviable option, Loong and Clarke still hope to stage an exhibition at another location.

While a discovery such as this is a tough act to follow, Clarke has a few ideas about where to send his next class of treasure hunters when he teaches the course again in the spring: to China’s ransacked Summer Palace, from which the heads of five bronze statues are missing.

With a few tweaks to how the teams of students conduct their research and better organization when it comes to working together, a similar project could be successful.

“There was no organization at first,” Popio said. “Then we learned from our mistakes and started setting deadlines.”

Malaske said that she gained more from the project than just better teamwork and research skills.

“You always hear about BC kids getting inspired and doing something,” she said, saying that was something that she didn’t feel she had truly experienced until now. “This became such a cool opportunity because we showed interest. It’s exciting to feel like we did something.” 

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