Re-Enacting the Silk Road: Transnational Encounters for the 21st Century

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: Sch of Geography


Informed by the AHRC's 'Translating Cultures' highlight notice, the research network will investigate the concept of the Silk Road as a seemingly privileged site of cultural transmission, translation and exchange, in order to consider its radical potential to challenge the bounded, oppositional geopolitics that still determine the conventional categories of 'East' and 'West'. An international, inter-disciplinary and cross-sectoral forum, the network is intended to spark new conversations and collaborations between academics, travel writers, professionals from museums, art galleries and the tourist industry, and practitioners in the creative and visual arts. In doing so, it will serve to enable a wider public re-imagining of this ancient, long-distance trade route linking towns and cities from eastern China to western Europe, so that it speaks to 21st century global concerns.

The Silk Road has featured prominently in historical geographies of Europe and Asia for more than a century, and remains a powerfully evocative metaphor around which narratives of east-west relationships are constructed. Investigations into the economic, cultural and intellectual exchanges between Europe and Asia are almost as old as the interactions themselves. The systematic study of ancient overland trade routes however, only began in the late 19th century when European historians, geographers and archaeologists produced the first scholarly accounts of the main trans-continental conduits along which people and commodities, particularly high-value, low-bulk textiles such as silk, moved in waxing and waning cycles over many centuries. Classic early works on the Silk Road include those by Scottish Orientalist Henry Yule (1820-1880), who re-introduced the adventures of the Venetian traveller Marco Polo to the Victorian reading public, and German explorer and academic Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833-1905), who coined the phrase 'Seidenstrasse' in 1877. These pioneering ideas were developed in the early 20th century by explorers, collectors and writers such as the controversial Swedish adventurer Sven Hedin (1865-1952) and the remarkable Hungarian-born traveller Aurel Stein (1862-1943), as well as by more sedentary geopolitical theorists such as Halford Mackinder (1861-1947). Since World War Two, new forms of historical and archaeological research have transformed the terms in which the Silk Road has been interpreted, rejecting the imperialist connotations of earlier accounts and emphasising instead the shared traditions and mutually constitutive encounters between regions shaped by comparable though different economic, social and intellectual forces. Despite these more critical approaches however, exoticising imaginative geographies of the routeway persist. Stories of the Silk Road reproduce images not only of intercultural exchange, but also of luxury, the exotic and the adventurous, as evident in contemporary travelogues, literary fiction, television programmes and other cultural performances produced and consumed in both western and eastern countries.

In the context of the rapid economic development of China, India and other Asian powers, and in response to increasing popular interest in the Silk Road, this network seeks to develop recent critical re-assessments of east-west economic, cultural and intellectual translation and exchange, so as to extend their impact within such public sectors as tourism, heritage and the arts. Although the network will include specialists in Silk Road studies, the workshops are not primarily designed to advance historical and archaeological research. Rather, these events will bring together academics and non-specialist professionals from the creative and tourist industries, travel writing, and the visual arts to explore how recent scholarship on the Silk Road might facilitate a wider public re-imagining of this ancient trade route.

Planned Impact

Serving to support a public re-imagining of the concept of the Silk Road through particular creative and public engagement activities, the proposed network has the capacity for cultural and economic impact on a local, national and international scale. In particular, the network has the potential to enhance the international influence of the creative and cultural sector by laying the foundations for ongoing relationships between museums, galleries and archives in the UK and China. In the medium term it is hoped that this will be pursued through the development of a post-network arts project, for which additional research funding will be sought, involving two artists-in-residence from east and west who will be charged with producing new images, representations and enactments to be displayed in a travelling exhibition about the Silk Road's past, present and future, which will itself move along one version of the routeway through four or five cities.

In the short term the network will directly benefit particular organisations and individuals in the public sector, thanks to our collaborative partnerships with Nottingham Castle Museum & Art Gallery and the Royal Geographical Society (with Institute of British Geographers), London. In particular, it will contribute directly to programmes of activity organised by Nottingham Museums Service and the RGS-IBG, London, as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, which aims to showcase innovation and excellence in museums, libraries and archives to a worldwide audience.

The network's second workshop is scheduled to coincide with an international exhibition at Nottingham Castle Museum & Art Gallery, Living In Silk. Drawing together exhibits from the Museum's own collection of Chinese material, with a substantial loan from the China National Silk Museum, Hangzhou, the exhibition celebrates the global exchanges that have shaped and continue to shape fashion in the East Midlands, as part of Dress the World, a collaborative programme of three East Midlands' exhibitions. In doing so, the network will feed into the history of the local textile industry, with Nottingham as a place of textile heritage and contemporary fashion (e.g. Paul Smith). A further 'local' impact of this partnership with Nottingham Museums will come through the participation of a group of young people from across Nottinghamshire in the second workshop, where they will be invited to discuss their role in curating the Living in Silk exhibition.

The network will also contribute to the public engagement activities of the RGS-IBG. In collaboration with key network members, the Society will organise a display of historic collections materials relating to the Silk Road, which will be available to the public, as well as the participants of the third workshop. Additionally, further public events will be organised at the RGS-IBG to coincide with the workshops, including their 'Be Inspired' afternoon talks, and a Collections Showcase, which will draw on the expertise of those involved in the research network.

Finally, the RGS-IBG provides a useful opportunity to engage with travel writers and professionals from the tourist industry, through the organisation of a 'Discovering' or travel industry event focusing on the Silk Road. It is in this arena that the proposed network has the capacity for further impact. In particular, the programme has the potential to impact on the commercial sector by enabling the UK travel and tourism industry to develop more effectively, but also in a socially and environmentally responsible way, in an increasingly competitive international market. By bringing representatives from the travel industry together with those from the cultural and heritage sectors in the east and west, the network is concerned with promoting sustainable and historically sensitive travel from east to west, and west to east, that helps to conserve the historic environment of the Silk Road.
Description The key finding of the research network, which members of the team involved are continuing to explore, is the development of a more nuanced and complex idea of the Silk Road. This was originally a European, imperial conceptualisation which was first articulated in the late 19th century in ways that endorsed western expansion into central Asia. The idea has recently been re-imagined and re-appropriated by several Asian countries, notably China, to legitimise their own economic ambitions in the the same region and in the west.
Exploitation Route 1) The PI and CI are currently working on a new application for a major research project on 20th century travel that draws directly on the work undertaken on this AHRC research network. An application to Leverhulme for a large grant to consider counter-cultural travel, focusing on three main locations associated with the counter-cultural movement in the 1960s and 1970s, is being prepared by the PI and CoI on this now completed AHRC project and Professor Scott McCabe (Business School, University of Nottingham). This is currently being reviewed within the University of Nottingham.
2) We are still investigating the possibility of a new exhibition of specially commissioned art works that reflect on the dualities and complexities of the Silk Road as explained above, to involve artists from Europe and Asia. Progress on this has stalled somewhat, mainly as the PI has been involved as CoI on another AHRC project, but this remains a medium-term ambition.
3) Felix de Montety, whose ESRC funded PhD at the University of Nottingham, supervised by Professor Heffernan, was a direct outcome of the AHRC Network, was employed based on his work by the Bibliotheque Nationale de France to catalogue the rich photographic archive of the Paris Geographical Society relating to Central Asia, drawing on ideas developed in the AHRC Network and explored in his PhD thesis.
Sectors Creative Economy,Education,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Security and Diplomacy,Transport

Description As an AHRC research network award, the primary objective was the establishment of new research alliances and collaborations. This is an on-going process. The measurable impacts thus far relate to the museums, libraries and learned societies in the UK and France that were involved in the network and that possess important, though previously overlooked collections and materials relating to the history of the Silk Road. When representatives of these institutions came together as members of the network they became for the first time about their different materials. The specific examples here are International Dunhuang Project (IDP) in the British Library, the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) in London, and the Musee des Tissus et des Arts Decoratifs (MTAM) in Lyons. Representatives from all three were prominently involved in the network, and attended all three workshops. As a direct consequence of the network, the IDP and the RGS collaborated in the organisation of a major public exhibition of photography held in the former location but displayed in the latter, the exhibition partly funded by AHRC thanks to a short extension of the network project. This was a very successful exhibition, entitled 'Aurel Stein and the Silk Road: Hundred Years On', and was co-curated by the PI and members of the AHRC network from the British Library (International Dunhuang Project) and provided a powerful commentary on changing environmental conditions in the arid regions of Central Asia over the past century. The exhibition was open from the beginning of January to the end of March 2014 and received over 7,000 visitors. The visitor book was filled with positive comments. The network therefore brought to a significant public audience previously unknown images that provide an important message on environmental change. In addition to above, it is anticipated that members of the network (which will continue to grow thanks partly to the newly-established interdisciplinary Travel Cultures Research Seminar series at the University of Nottingham) will formulate two new projects: a) a travelling exhibition of newly commissioned artwork that will tour museums and libraries along Silk Road b) a research on environmentally and culturally sustainable tourism in relation to the UNESCO designated World Heritage Sites on the Silk Road. Professor Heffernan has been working with Professor Scott McCabe (Business School, University of Nottingham) and Dr Jean-Xavier Ridon School of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies, University of Nottingham), the latter involved as Co-I on this award on a new research grant application, developing many of the themes discussed in this networking project. The new project will focus on 'counter-cultural travel' from the 1950s to the 1960s and will focus in part on the Silk Road as a space of mid-20th century adventure tourism. This application, which has been developed over two years now, is currently under review in the University of Nottingham. This proposal has been internally reviewed within the University of Nottingham and is being significantly revised at present, with a view to submission to the Leverhulme Trust in 2019.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Creative Economy,Education,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Security and Diplomacy,Transport
Impact Types Cultural