Our Asian and African Studies blog promotes the work of our curators, recent acquisitions, digitisation projects, and collaborative projects outside the Library. Our starting point was the British Library’s exhibition ‘Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire’, which ran 9 Nov 2012 to 2 Apr 2013 Read more
This year the Library celebrates one of the greatest literary figures of all time, William Shakespeare (1564–1616), with a major exhibition and a rich series of events and on-line resources. Coincidently, two other world-famous writers died in the same year: Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616), and the Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu 湯顯祖(1550–1616). To commemorate these two writers, the Library recently presented in its permanent free exhibition space, the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, the display Imagining Don Quixote, and is currently showing a selection of woodblock printed editions from Tang Xiangzu’s work. For those who cannot visit the British Library to see the display on Tang in person, this blog post presents some information on the exhibits.
Tang Xianzu is one of the greatest Chinese playwrights. He was a native of Linchuan, Jiangxi province, and worked as an official during the reign of the Wanli Emperor (1572–1620) of the Ming dynasty. Tang Xianzu’s masterpiece is called the ‘Peony Pavilion’ (牡丹亭 Mudan ting). The ‘Peony Pavilion’ was written and staged for the first time in 1598 and performed at the Pavilion of Prince Teng, one of the great Chinese towers in Southern China. It is still one of the most beloved and famous Chinese traditional operas today.
Xu xiang mudan ting, 繡像牡丹亭, ‘Illustrated Peony Pavilion’ in 8 chapters, c. 1840, woodblock printed edition. In this illustration from a Qing dynasty edition of the text, we can see the opening scene, when the sixteen-year-old Du Liniang falls asleep in the garden and starts dreaming. British Library, 15327.b.15
The term ‘opera’ is often used in reference to Chinese theatre as it was common for dramatic performances to be highly choreographed and punctuated by singing and musical accompaniment. There are many forms of Chinese opera, but the ‘Peony Pavilion’ is traditionally performed as a kunqu or ‘Kun opera’, a style developed in the early Ming period, which combines spoken parts with singing and dance movements.
The Peony Pavilion performed in Venice on 15th of June 2010 (photo by the author). The original version of the Peony Pavilion runs for 20 hours, and comprises a total of 55 scenes, but it is now usually performed in shorter adaptations.
The ‘Peony Pavilion’ is sometimes referred to as ‘A Ghost Story’, because part of it takes place in the underworld and the protagonist returns from the afterlife. It narrates the love story between a girl from a wealthy family, Du Liniang, and the scholar Liu Mengmei. After seeing Liu in a dream and falling in love with him, Du dies of sorrow. Her spirit keeps looking for the young scholar and the Judge of the Underworld promises to resurrect her so that she can see him again. After appearing in Liu’s dreams as a ghost, her body is exhumed by Liu and the couple live happily thereafter.
Xu xiang mudan ting, 繡像牡丹亭, ‘Illustrated Peony Pavilion’ in 8 chapters, c. 1840, woodblock printed edition. British Library 15327.b.16, another copy of the same edition of the work as in 15327.b.15.
The ‘Peony Pavilion’ is one of the so-called ‘Four Dreams’ (Lin chuan si meng), four of Tang’s most important plays in which dreams play a significant part in the story. They include also ‘The Purple Hairpin’, ‘The Dream of Handan’ and ‘The Dream of the Southern Bough’. The latter two in particular contain themes of rejection of traditional feudal values and the possibility of escape through love and compassion in order to achieve happiness.
The ‘Dream of Southern Bough’, in the collection Shi er zhong qu十二種曲, ‘Twelve operas’, by Li Yu, 1785, woodblock printed edition. British Library, 15327.a.3
The ‘Peony Pavilion’ has been translated into many languages and adapted several times for television and theatre productions such as contemporary opera, ballet and musical performances, both in China and abroad. The escape from the conventions of feudal society, the power of true love to conquer even death, and the cathartic role of dreams are central themes of the ‘Peony Pavilion’. Together they created a story that is universal and beloved by students, readers and audiences around the world.
‘Die Rückkehr der Seele’ (The Return of the Soul), translated by Vincenz Hundhausen. Zürich/Leipzig, 1937. This edition of the ‘Peony Pavilion’, translated and edited by Vincenz Hundhausen, is accompanied by forty reproductions of Chinese woodcuts from the Ming period. British Library, 11101.f.28
Further reading: Tan, Tian Yuan and Santangelo, Paolo 'Passion, Romance, and Qing: The World of Emotions and States of Mind in Peony Pavilion' (3 vols.), in Emotions and States of Mind in East Asia, Vol. 4. Leiden: Brill, 2015. Tan, Tian Yuan, Edmondson, Paul and Wang, Shih-pe, 1616: Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu's China. London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2016.
If you look at how museums choose to digitally engage with their audiences, especially in the past few years, it is evident that 3D technologies have become standard practice within their larger digital outreach. There is an increasing tendency to utilise 3D models and prints to enhance online resources featuring collection items, or as exhibition materials in galleries. Some museums still have limited experience of utilising 3D technologies, while others do it on a large-scale and on a regular basis. Overall, the 3D trend has already had a great impact on the cultural heritage sector as a whole. However, while a museum is more of a usual suspect for these novel technologies, libraries are perhaps less so. They are perceived to hold books, manuscripts, documents, or in short – compilations of two-dimensional text. But nothing physical that a library holds is in fact two-dimensional, and some items kept in libraries may be of unanticipated nature. Libraries have more potential to engage with 3D modelling and printing than one would expect. In the following examples, move your mouse over the object to see the item in 3D.
Silk mantle (textile cover) for a Torah scroll, date unknown (British Library Or 13027)
What does it actually mean, to 3D model and print items? A 3D model is a full representation of an object that can be viewed and manipulated by a user in a digital space. There are two main ways to digitise and present real world objects: 3D scanning (or laser scanning) and photogrammetry – image based modelling. While the former method is more expensive and requires expert knowledge, the latter is affordable and easy to implement. If 3D modelling takes an object from the physical into the digital world, 3D printing takes it back into the physical. 3D printing is the process of using a 3D model to create a physical object via a variety of printing methods, such extrusion of plastics, resins, and other materials. One of the ways a 3D printer works is actually similar to how an inkjet printer works, but instead of using ink it uses a filament – laying the filament down and slowly building up a 3D structure.
3D technologies used in the cultural sector have many benefits. 3D models and prints can be supplemental tools for visualisation, enhancing the experience of viewing an object. They can be used in physical as well as virtual exhibitions online, as well as enhance a 2D collection catalogue hosted online or feature in other online content. In this way, curators and educators can use 3D data to tell a story, online visitors can explore the collections in a new and stimulating way, and there is a potential to engage the larger, international public. 3D prints can be displayed at touring locations, used in education systems as sustainable objects for teaching and training (instead of the real items), and used as event giveaways. There is also a commercial potential for prints, as replicas of objects can be sold, full scale or in miniature and in different materials and colours. In short, 3D technologies change how people access and engage with cultural resources.
All this is hardly news for the museum sector. What’s innovative here is that the British Library is joining the game too. It makes perfect sense for such a large library to re-examine its traditional approach to the delivery of information and to keep seeking novel means of public and scholarly engagement – especially in light of the huge variety of items it holds. Aside from the more predictable formats (books, newspapers, documents, maps), the Library’s physical collection spans from inscribed bones, seals, scrolls, wooden cases, fine textiles, and folding books with covers embellished with gold and jewels, to wooden cabinets, chests, ship models and even rifles! Some collection items such as manuscript chests cannot be called up by readers from the Library’s basement – they are too heavy and too fragile. And as most of the Library’s collection items are not on display in one of its galleries, 3D digitisation affords the opportunity to bring these items into the virtual light.
In the past year I’ve been involved in creating several 3D models for two British Library projects: the Hebrew Manuscripts and the Oracle Bones digitisation projects. The former digitised 1,300 Hebrew manuscripts – codices (manuscripts in book format), scrolls, charters and loose folios spanning 1,000 years from the 10th to the 20th century CE, mainly from Europe and the Middle East. This rare collection of manuscripts represents all the areas of Jewish knowledge, whether religious or secular.
Pentateuch from Italy, dated to 1486 CE (British Library Add MS 4709)
The latter project digitised more than 480 Chinese ‘oracle bones’, dating between 1600 and 1050 BCE (Shang Dynasty). These are the oldest objects in the Library, including mainly shoulder animal bones and some tortoise shells’ fragments, bearing the earliest known examples of Chinese writing. Used in divination rituals, the bones were inscribed with questions posed to ancestors, the answers to which were interpreted from cracks formed in the bones when heated. The digitised Hebrew manuscripts and oracle bones can be viewed on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website.
Inscribed oracle bone, dating to the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600-1050 BCE; British Library Or 7694/1595)
The method that we use for 3D modelling at the Library is photogrammetry – creating a 3D structure from a series of overlapping 2D images. Before the imaging started, the items were called up from the Library’s storage facility, which closely monitors temperature and humidity levels. We benefited from the Imaging Studio’s advanced photography and lighting equipment and our only further investment in equipment was a £6 turntable. In the case of the oracle bones, which are mostly rather flat objects, conservator Karen Bradford created stands for them to be placed on securely, in a way that would allow for optimised photo capture but also protect the bones. Karen was present throughout the imaging process, to make sure the bones were safely handled.
British Library conservator Karen Bradford stabilising an oracle bone in a foam stand before imaging
The imaging process began with taking photographs of each item from different angles, with sufficient overlap. In order to do that, each object was placed on a turntable and the camera was mounted on a tripod. We rotated the turntable at roughly 5-10 degrees with a photo taken at each position. After completing a 360-degree circle the item was turned to its reverse side and the process was repeated. Once enough photos had been taken, the images were white balanced and then masked ready for the modelling process in Agisoft PhotoScan. When the models were complete, they were published to Sketchfab. The oracle bones were also printed by the 3D expert ThinkSee3D, who made sure the Chinese writing remains as legible as possible.
British Library senior imaging technician Neil McCowlen imaging oracle bone Or 7694/1595
Neil made sure the bones were in focus and the script was sharp and clear
3D modelling at the British Library is still in its early stages, but the potential is immense. It suffices to make your way to Asian and African Studies on the third floor in the British Library building at St Pancras, and look at the current exhibition outside of the Reading Room, called ‘More than a Book’. Southeast Asian manuscripts come in different shapes and forms, such as an Indonesian divination manuscript inscribed on a bamboo container, or 19th-century wooden or bamboo Thai title indicators, which helped identify and retrieve manuscripts stored in large numbers in wooden cabinets in temple libraries (see for example Or 16555). Thai manuscripts were stored in boxes, chests or cabinets placed in Buddhist temple libraries or in palaces, and often decorated in red and gold and carved with beautiful designs. The Library holds six such magnificent items from the 19th century, some of which are displayed inside and outside the Asian and African Studies Reading Room, and others – in the basement (e.g. Foster 1057 – weighing over half a ton!).
Divination manuscript inscribed in Karo Batak on a bamboo container, Indonesia (British Library Or 16736)
19th century Northern Thai manuscript wooden box, decorated with gilt and lacquer (Foster 1056), displayed in the Asian & African Studies Reading Room
The Southeast Asian exhibition offers just a small taste to what the department of Asian and African Studies has to offer to 3D enthusiasts. The department has three tiny printed Qur’ans. Due to their very small size, the text is almost illegible which indicates that these Qur'ans were probably not intended to be read. They may have been owned as protective talismans (hama'il) since one comes with a locket to be worn around the neck. Another possibility is that they were ornamental, much like a similar example found in Queen Mary’s Doll House in the Royal Collection.
Opening up these tiny books and turning their pages in order to digitise their text could put pressure on their bindings and would therefore be harmful from a conservation point of view. Modelling these delicate Qur’ans may present a safer way to display these online – and to some extent a more engaging one. Other interesting three-dimensional items from the Arabic collections are three ox bones bearing magic Arabic inscriptions. These have undergone multispectral imaging by Imaging Scientist Christina Duffy, and have an unmistakable potential to be viewed in 3D. And when going back to the collection that initially inspired us to do 3D modelling – the collection of Hebrew manuscripts – there are so many more candidates: codices with interesting bindings, or intriguing scrolls such as Scrolls of Esther, telling the story of rescuing the Jews of Persia from an annihilation plot.
Two tiny Qur’ans, one from 1882 Delhi (left, British Library O.R.70.a.4), the other from 1889 Istanbul (right, British Library O.R.70.a.3)
Ox bones with Arabic inscriptions (British Library Or 9667)
15th-century liturgy from Italy in pre-1600 CE binding, made with red velvet and clasps (British Library Add MS 16577)|
16-17th-century Scrolls of Esther: with wooden roller and silk cover (British Library Add MS 11834; top); made of leather, wooden core with carved ivory roller mounted with brass, from Italy (British Library Or 1086; bottom)
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg of what the British Library has to offer, 3D-wise. Some of its most famous and unique items (outside of Asian and African Studies) which would be wonderful to view in 3D include Elizabeth I prayer book, a rare item with its original 16th-century binding and embroidery, and the 8th-century St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest intact European book. I’m very hopeful that the existing models and prints will inspire an increased use of 3D technologies at the British Library as well as other libraries worldwide.
Thank you Annabel Gallop, Christina Duffy, Daniel Lowe, Emma Goodliffe, Jana Igunma, and Steven Dey for providing materials for this blog post.
Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert, Digital Curator (Polonsky Fellow) for the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project
The Qatar Digital Library (QDL), launched by the British Library-Qatar Foundation Partnership in October 2014, contains a huge – and growing – number of British colonial documents related to the history of the Persian Gulf and broader Middle East from the 18th to 20th Century, all of which are now freely available to search and download. This post will introduce two series of documents on the QDL that are useful for those interested in the history of Bahrain and the surrounding region in the first half of the twentieth century; namely the Intelligence Summaries of the British Political Agency in Bahrain and the Government of Bahrain’s Annual Administrative Reports.
These summaries consist of fortnightly intelligence reports that were composed by the British Political Agent in Bahrain and distributed to a number of British officials in London, India and throughout the Middle East. They were subsequently grouped by year and filed in the archive of the Political Agency. These previously confidential records constitute a remarkable historical resource regarding a fascinating time in Bahrain’s history. Throughout this period, Bahrain was at the centre of Britain’s Informal Empire in the Gulf and Charles Belgrave, the British adviser of the country’s rulers, was a hugely influential figure in the country. From the mid-1930s onwards, Bahrain’s oil industry began to rapidly develop, leading to substantial changes in Bahraini society and this transformation is documented in detail in these reports. They are also a useful resource concerning the history of the Persian Gulf region more broadly, since events in Kuwait, Qatar, the Trucial Coast (modern-day UAE), Oman, Saudi Arabia and occasionally Iraq and Iran, are all mentioned too. Government of Bahrain Annual Report for Year 1358 (February 1939 - February 1940). British Library, IOR/R/15/1/750/4
The summaries constitute an important historical record related to a wide range of topics including slave trafficking and smuggling, the development of the oil industry, labour movements, international shipping and trade, British colonial history, the Gulf’s relationship with the Arab World (notably the Palestinian cause), power struggles between – and within – the region’s ruling families, the impact of the Second World War and the local reaction to international events (such as the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and the partition of Palestine). The records also contain details of every visit made to Bahrain by British and foreign notables during this period, as well as weather and meteorological data.
Alongside serious intelligence reporting related to political, military and economic developments in the region, the summaries also contain dozens of surreal and humorous vignettes concerning everyday life in Bahrain, such as the wide-spread popularity of a restaurant that served alcoholic cider, as well as several stories regarding the misdemeanours of members of Bahrain’s ruling family. A number of tragic tales are also mentioned in the reports including the death of a Bahraini fisherman after he was impaled by a sword fish and the drowning of forty pilgrims in the so-called ‘Nebi Saleh Tragedy’.
Changes in the social and cultural life of the region are also documented in the summaries. Incidents recorded include a football match between a Bahraini team and a team of Sudanese and Italian ARAMCO workers in Saudi Arabia that had to be abandoned after members of the Bahraini team attacked the referee, and the first boxing tournament ever held by a Bahraini sporting club. The growing popularity of cinema in the country is also frequently mentioned.
Government of Bahrain Annual Administrative Reports (1926-1944)
The Government of Bahrain’s Annual Reports that were compiled by the aforementioned Charles Belgrave from another significant historical resource for the study of the modern history of Bahrain. These reports document the significant expansion in government services that occurred during this period and contain detailed information related to Bahrain’s finances, oil industry, education, health and judicial systems, municipal projects, police force, pearl diving industry and several other topics. Government of Bahrain Annual Report for Year 1358 (February 1939 - February 1940). British Library, IOR/R/15/1/750/4
The reports are illustrated throughout including photographs that depict the visits of dignitaries such as Ibn Sa’ud, the King of Saudi Arabia and show the numerous municipal buildings that were constructed during a period of frenetic expansion including hospitals, law courts and schools. They also contain a number of tables, graphs and other statistical information.
Together, all of these documents form an invaluable historical resource, both for researchers who were previously unable to visit the British Library in London and for students keen to gain experience using primary documents. New material is regularly uploaded to the QDL site and will continue to be added until at least the end of 2018.
Louis Allday, Gulf History/Arabic Language Specialist @Louis_Allday