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