Global ar­chae­ol­o­gist

An Ox­ford ed­u­cated, Ger­man-born sci­en­tist takes a pas­sion for China to On­tario mu­seum

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By LI MENG in Toronto for China Daily

Ger­man-born, Ox­ford sci­en­tist shows Cana­di­ans an­cient China

For Sascha Priewe, the ques­tion “Where do you live?” might not be so easy to an­swer. Ac­cord­ing to his re­sume posted on the web­site of Royal On­tario Mu­seum (ROM), the Ger­man­born ar­chae­ol­o­gist and cu­ra­tor has lived in Swe­den, China and the UK. And since March 2015, Priewe, the new man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of three of the ROM’s eight Cen­tres of Dis­cov­ery, has started a brand new life in Toronto.

“Toronto is a fan­tas­tic city, vi­brant and cul­tur­ally di­verse,” said Priewe. “And as a bonus, it is a great base for out­door ac­tiv­i­ties.”

It seems a nat­u­ral re­ac­tion for a Ger­man who was born in Mönchenglad­bach, a mid-sized land­locked city fa­mous mainly for its soc­cer club. For young Priewe grow­ing up, how­ever, Chi­nese char­ac­ters were more in­ter­est­ing than football.

Priewe will never for­get how im­pressed he was about 15 years ago when he first looked into a friend’s Chi­nese text­book. “I was so sur­prised,” he said. He couldn’t even find the suit­able word to de­scribe his feel­ings.

These im­age-like char­ac­ters, since then, have led him into a mys­te­ri­ous and to­tally new world. Grad­u­ally he has fallen in love with tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­ture, and even got a Chi­nese name: Pei Yanhua.

Priewe speaks flu­ent Chi­nese, some­times with a Bei­jing ac­cent. Although he has stud­ied Chi­nese over the past decade and is able to read aca­demic Chi­nese jour­nals, he some­times gets con­fused in public places where com­mon say­ings are largely used. These chal­lenges, how­ever, only in­crease Priewe’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to dig deep and ex­plore. For him, the “com­plex­ity and mys­te­ri­ous­ness” of Chi­nese cul­ture is the most en­gag­ing thing for a for­eigner.

Priewe got his PhD in ar­chae­ol­ogy at Ox­ford. His re­search mainly fo­cused on the Ne­olithic and Bronze ages of the Yangtze River.

In 2001, Priewe went to China for the first time. He stayed in Bei­jing for a few days, wan­der­ing around old streets and vis­it­ing gal­leries and mu­se­ums. He re­calls that there were not as many sky­scrapers in Bei­jing at that time, es­pe­cially out­side of the Third Ring.

By the time he re­turned in 2004 as the cul­tural at­taché at the Ger­man Em­bassy in Bei­jing, things had changed a lot. Priewe was shocked by the high-speed de­vel­op­ment of the old city and felt like he was driv­ing through a con­crete for­est.

In or­der to get ready for the 2008 Olympic Games, the whole city was in a fi­nal sprint. New build­ings were con­structed ev­ery day while old ob­jects and mem­o­ries silently dis­ap­peared. “I have never seen such an en­er­getic city be­fore,” said Priewe.

In this ever chang­ing at­mos­phere, Priewe had con­stantly at­tempted to grasp the un­chang­ing and the eter­nal things still rooted in the an­cient cul­ture. Week­ends he went to the Palace Mu­seum, the Sum­mer Palace and an­tique stores in Pan­ji­ayuan. Dur­ing the two years he lived and worked in Bei­jing, Priewe searched for the con­nec­tion be­tween the cul­ture and those Chi­nese char­ac­ters that had cap­ti­vated him years ear­lier.

And he trav­eled a lot, a habit since his col­lege years. From 2004 to 2006 he vis­ited a num­ber of cities and towns in north­ern and south­ern China. What at­tracted him most was the Yangtze River, the third long­est river in the world.

The 6,300-kilo­me­ter-long river had pro­vided him with aca­demic in­spi­ra­tion. His PhD the­sis was on Ne­olithic relics of Hubei and Hu­nan prov­inces, both of which are lo­cated in the mid­dle reaches of the river.

The strong in­ter­est in ar­chae­ol­ogy led him to Lon­don in 2006, mainly be­cause of the Bri­tish Mu­seum. “The Chi­nese col­lec­tion there is unimag­in­able,” he said.

While pur­su­ing his PhD, Priewe worked as a cu­ra­tor and re­searcher at the mu­seum. “It is a bit of luck that my ca­reer as a cu­ra­tor started there,” he said.

His dili­gence is re­flected by his fre­quent ap­pear­ances at aca­demic lec­tures. He talks about Chi­nese bronzes in Asian Art in Lon­don, teaches cour­ses at Sotheby’s In­sti­tute of Art and Christie’s Ed­u­ca­tion, and helps or­ga­nize vol­un­teer projects and aca­demic pro­grams for the mu­seum. To­wards the end of 2014, he heard about the job at ROM.

Since join­ing ROM, his job de­scrip­tion has been slightly al­tered. At the Bri­tish Mu­seum, most of his work fo­cused on Chi­nese and Korean art and ar­chae­ol­ogy. Af­ter be­ing ap­pointed man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of three Cen­ters of Dis­cov­ery at ROM (An­cient Cul­tures, World Art and Cul­ture, and Tex­tiles and Fash­ions), he wel­comes the chal­lenge of main­tain­ing a broader out­look on the world’s cul­tures.

There are rich col­lec­tions of Chi­nese an­tiques in the mu­se­ums of Europe and North Amer­ica, while art cen­ters and mu­se­ums in China have started col­lect­ing and ex­hibit­ing Western arts. Priewe, as a vis­it­ing cu­ra­tor at the Shang­hai Mu­seum, is thrilled to see spe­cial ex­hi­bi­tions on Im­pres­sion­ism and Ex­pres­sion­ism there.

“Mu­se­ums, at times, can be re­garded as mir­rors,” said Priewe. “Through them, a coun­try and even an age can be ar­tis­ti­cally re­flected.”


Sascha Priewe has just been ap­pointed man­ag­ing di­rec­tor at the Royal On­tario Mu­seum.


Sascha Priewe stand­ing in front of a Chi­nese-styles an­tique gate in ROM.

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