Junks can be spotted in many of the photographs in our collections of harbours, coasts, and rivers. They attracted curious interest from residents and visitors, for they seemed ‘picturesque’, but they were also caught in snapshots simply because they were an integral part of the maritime and river economy. As Dr Donna Brunero explains in a new article in the Journal for Maritime Research, they also inspired academic research, and an initiative to record them in another format: as models.
The Chinese Maritime Customs service (CMCS) is best known for its role in regulating and reporting on the trade of China from 1854-1950. A relatively less known facet of the CMCS was its contributions to the knowledge of the maritime history of China. Customs staff wrote for the Mariner’s Mirror and over time produced a number of books on Chinese shipping such as George Worcester’s Sail and Sweep in China (1966).
My initial research has focused on a project to develop a collection of Chinese Junk models that was inaugurated under the guidance of Sir Frederick Maze in 1933. Maze was an often-controversial Inspector General of the CMCS between 1928-1943, and he donated his collection of models to the Science Museum in London in the 1930s. From the outset, it appears Maze was inspired to capture what he saw as a ‘vanishing era’ of Chinese shipping. He may also have been inspired by his contemporary, James Hornell, whose maritime ethnographic works on India remains well-known. The links between Maze and Hornell’s work provides further scope for considering the ‘imperial gaze’ through the act of gathering knowledge on native shipping (and is the subject of on-going research). By exploring the development of the Maze collection we have insights into how maritime ethnographic studies were conducted in the 1930s and also museum curatorial policies of the era. We also have insights into how CMCS resources – in this instance the talents and time of staff – were redirected to this project. Maze was often frustrated that he felt his collection was not being given a prominent enough position at the Science Museum; here the tensions between an ambitious donor and the museum curator comes to the fore.
Described by The Illustrated London News as a collection of ‘ancient and picturesque sailing craft’ the Maze Collection of Chinese Junk Models remained on display in the Water Transport section of the Science Museum for over 60 years; the collection is now in storage awaiting another opportunity to be rediscovered.
Donna Brunero is Senior Lecturer in the Department of History at the National University of Singapore. Her research and teaching covers the intersections between maritime and imperial history, with particular reference to the British in Asia, and the Colonial port cities (and treaty ports) of Asia. Dr Brunero’s current projects include: work on maritime ethnography and museology, the British maritime empire in Asia in the long 19th century, and the material life and culture of Britons in treaty port China. She is the author of Britain’s Imperial Cornerstone in China: The Chinese Maritime Customs Service, 1854-1949 (London: Routledge, 2006) .