Art gallery in Washington takes visitors back to the Bronze Age…with bells

World Today

Art gallery in Washington takes visitors back to the Bronze Age…with bells

When you think of bells, you might think of a call to dinner or sounding an alarm.
But if you lived in ancient China, bells were used quite differently–to track pets and as part of funeral rituals. Perhaps the most striking:  how they evolved into complex musical instruments.

CGTN’s Frances Kuo is in Washington, DC with more.

It’s a trip back in time at Washington D.C.’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

Visitors are transported to the Chinese Bronze Age thousands of years ago.

Seventy-five bells take center stage – the biggest weighs in at 90 kilograms, or 20 pounds, and the smallest is just a few milligrams.

Some are similar to the famous collection of Chinese ruler Marquis Yi, whose tomb was unearthed in Hubei Province in 1978.  That discovery sparked interest in the ancient bells worldwide.

“I first read about these bells in high school,” said visitor Michael Conley.  “I’ve been very interested in them since then.”

“In this one tomb, they found an accumulation of some 65 bells as well as a range of musical instruments,” said Keith Wilson, Curator of Ancient Chinese Art of the Smithsonian’s Freer / Sackler Gallery. 

All of the bells are made out of bronze, a tough material ideal for making weapons.  Yet even during that period of war, Marquis Yi used them to make music.

“The Chinese music system of the Bronze Age was probably the most sophisticated in the world,” said Keith Wilson, Curator of Ancient Chinese Art at the Freer/ Sackler Gallery.  “I think most people don’t know that.”  The ancient bells were last played in 1991 when 12 tones of a six-bell set were recorded. 

The Sackler Gallery commissioned three composers to take those distinct notes and make their own audio and visual compositions. 

At the exhibit, visitors can observe the difference between the ancient bells and their Western counterparts, from their shapes to their sounds.

At another display, visitors can virtually strike the ancient bells in front of them and match them up with the keys of a modern keyboard.

Touching up the tones is one thing; handling the bells is another.

“Our conservation team is loath to have us play them today. There’s a concern about how intact the metal is in each of the instruments,” said Wilson.

It’s not just about protecting the objects themselves but a bit of their mystique.

“The designers of the bells could have made clear strike points, indicated very clearly in the design of the bell, the exact strike points they wanted you to use,” said Wilson. “They didn’t do that. So it would’ve really been up to the performers at the time to know where exactly they should strike them.  Maybe they didn’t want us to know!”

And maybe it’s a way to strike our own imagination about just how history played out.