Today's Nantucket

Major Asian Art Exhibit Opens in the Nantucket Whaling Museum

On Friday, May 27, the Nantucket Historical Association (NHA) will open the exhibition Asian Treasures from the Billings Collection in the Whaling Museum, McCausland Gallery, featuring pieces never before shown to the public.  The exhibit will continue through November 1, 2022.

The exhibition draws from the collection that longtime Nantucket residents and world travelers David Billings and Beverly Hall Billings have assembled over 50 years. It all started with a book, and two pieces of Asian art David Billings received as a gift, and now their collection includes 4,000 artifacts. The items in the collection elucidate political, economic, and religious events and, at the same time, present enormous aesthetic appeal. Most illustrate significant Chinese innovations and discoveries over the millennia. 

Most pieces included in the show are being shown for the first time publicly, and the NHA is excited to be able to give islanders and visitors the opportunity to see a significant portion of the collection. The NHA’s changing galleries at the Whaling Museum are the only museum spaces on the island equipped to present pieces like these safely and securely.

The exhibition will feature paintings, textiles, bronzes, and jade items. However, ceramics will predominate, including some of the earliest known pieces of earthenware from 5,000 BCE and porcelain, which dates from the Qing Dynasty, the last Imperial Chinese Dynasty. The exhibit will also include a scholar’s table featuring items an ancient Chinese scholar might have used to contemplate and write, a Japanese Buddhist household shrine, and robes from the imperial court. While the Billings collection concentrates on China, additional pieces will appear from India, Burma, Tibet, Korea, and Japan.

Among the many objects that will captivate visitors is a pair of exquisite gold finials inlaid with rare kingfisher feathers, a selection of Chinese snuff bottles, Tibetan and tea ceremony objects, a large Butsudan shrine, a Jin Rickshaw, and a wonderfully articulated diorama of a Peking opera. A Jade body suit burial cleverly concealed will round out this exceptional exhibition.

“This exhibition offers an extraordinary and rare opportunity to discover and examine works of art that reveal Asian culture right here on Nantucket.  It also highlights that Nantucketers have varied interests and collections that can broaden all of our perspectives,” states Chip Carver, NHA Board President.

A new 350-page book with full-color images published concurrently with the exhibition and written by David Billings and Beverly Hall Billings, Passion and Pursuit: The Billings Collection, is also available at the NHA’s Museum Shop.

The NHA’s mission is to preserve and interpret the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences. 

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