Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History: The Elizabeth Hubert Malott Hall of Jades

When one thinks of jade, one almost automatically thinks of China. Well, there’s some justification for that, given the Chinese fondness for jade going back thousands of years, but the Chinese weren’t alone, as we discover in this small but intriguing exhibition.

The Hall of Jades is tucked away in the southwest corner of the upper floor of the Field Museum. As one enters, one is greeted by a pair of large illuminated signs giving a brief introduction to the gallery, on either side of a small area that introduces us to jade and some of its history around the world. What we commonly refer to as “jade” is actually two different minerals, jadeite and nephrite. Both are very durable stones and come in a variety of colors, from green through yellow, lavender, blue, and white to red. And the two of them have been found — and appreciated — in every habitable continent. Jade has been used in Europe for at least six thousand years. The Maya in Mesoamerica have known and used jade for quite possibly four thousand years. And, also in the Americas, the peoples of the Arctic Woodland cultures of Northwest Alaska used jade to make tools. The Maori of New Zealand used jade for ornaments and tools, while the people of New Caledonia also knew and treasured the stone.

And then there’s China, which occupies most of the exhibition. (Hint: when you have navigated the introductory section, turn left to get the Chinese timeline in order.) The the display cases against the wall there are examples of jade artifacts from various Chinese cultures going back to about 4100 BCE. Jade was used mostly for tools and weapons at that point — not, perhaps for actual use, but symbolic offerings used as grave goods. And even then, jade was something of a status symbol: the more elaborate the burial, the more likely it was to contain jade offerings.

With the development of metal working, we enter the Bronze Age, and the examples of jade carvings gro more varied and more decorative. There is an increasing presence of animal and bird forms as pendants and other ornaments.

It’s in the Han period (206 BCE-220 CE), people began more and more to actually wear jade ornaments — no longer were they reserved for thead. This is a pattern that carried through the Tong, Song, and Yuan dynasties. By the time we reached the Qing (1644 CE; pronounced “ching”), we are treated to an increasing array of objects made of jade, not only pendants and other ornaments, but incence burners, chimes, bells, flutes, and even a miniature Chinese lute.

And with the advent of new working techniques in the twentieth century, it seems the sky was the limit: the few examples shown of twentieth century jades are intricate and finely detailed.

The Hall of Jades is an intriguing exhibition, particularly if you have an interest in Chinese culture over the last six thousand years. And just outside are, on the one hand, a nice little exhibition of meteors and how they originate, and on the other, running down the corridor to the west side galleries, gold jewelry, mostly from Asia and the Americas.

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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