Robert Sterling Clark in China

In 1908 Robert Sterling Clark, accompanied by a team of hand-picked professionals and support staff, explored the far reaches of Northern China and oversaw the creation of one of the first maps of a largely uncharted area of the world. Before this expedition, Clark served in the army in the Philippines and China and became fascinated with the Chinese nation, its people and culture. When he returned in 1908, his large and diverse team of explorers included a surveyor, a doctor, a meteorologist, an artist, and the famed British naturalist Arthur de Carle Sowerby, as well as some thirty additional staff. The team carried out geographical, zoological, and meteorological research, covering nearly 2,000 miles, primarily on horse and mule. In 1912 the expedition was documented in the book, Through Shên-Kan: The Account of the Clark Expedition in North China, 1908-9. Clark would later become known for his passion for nineteenth-century European and American painting, but this early scientific endeavor was a harbinger of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute’s long commitment to global outreach and scholarship.

In diverse ways, contemporary scholars and explorers have reexamined and expanded upon Clark’s archeological work in China. In 2008, three students from Oxford University retraced the Clark’s original route, recording the changes that have occurred during the past 100 years. Annette Juliano, in her upcoming book Unearthed: Recent Archaeological Discoveries from Northern China, showcases recently excavated artifacts from Shanxi and Gansu provinces in China—areas once explored by Clark. In Sterling Clark in China, Thomas J. Loughman presents a full account of Clark’s extraordinary contribution to archaeology.

Clark’s amazing contribution to our knowledge of the world along with many manifestations of his legacy of exploration and careful documentation are also currently on view at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts in three exhibitions:

Through Shên-kan: Sterling Clark in China (June 16, 2012 – September 16, 2012) is an exploration into Clark’s life and experiences in China and a selection of biological specimens, scientific equipment, historic photographs, and original documents related to the expedition.

Then & Now: Photographs of Northern China (June 16, 2012 – September 16, 2012) is a presentation of historic photographs from Sterling Clark’s 1908–09 exploration of Northern China juxtaposed with photographs of the same scenes captured by Chinese photographer Li Ju 100 years later. The display will illustrate what has changed and what has remained in this archeological territory over the last century.

Unearthed (June 16, 2012-October 21, 2012) presents recently excavated artifacts from Shanxi and Gansu provinces. These objects range from fantastical tomb guardian beasts to luxury goods, from religious and ritual relics to a magnificent house-shaped sarcophagus, many of which have never been exhibited outside China.

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