In 1908, thirty-one-year-old American adventurer Robert Sterling Clark
organized a scientific expedition to northern China for the purpose of creating a detailed geographical survey of the area, recording daily meteorological observations, photographing the people, places, and landscapes, and collecting samples of the flora and fauna.
Clark was fascinated with the Chinese nation and its people, but like many Westerners of his day, he felt that he had only glimpsed the surface of this rich and ancient culture. Trained as a civil engineer, Clark brought a scientist’s curiosity and method to the planning of his expedition, assembling a talented professional team that included a surveyor, a doctor and meteorologist, an artist, and the famed British naturalist Arthur de Carle Sowerby, as well as some thirty additional support staff.
Departing from the city of Taiyuan in Shanxi province, the Clark expedition traversed Shên-kan (the provinces of Shaanxi and Gansu), reaching as far westward as Lanzhou before returning to Taiyuan. In all, the team covered nearly 2000 miles (3200 km), primarily on horse and mule. A complete documentation of their journey, Through Shên-kan: The Account of the Clark Expedition in North China, 1908–9
, was published in 1912. Despite having devoted a number of years to planning the expedition, Clark never again returned to China. In 1910 he settled in Paris and began collecting art, an interest that would become the passion of his life.
Continuing its commitment to global outreach and scholarship, the Clark commemorated the 100th anniversary of the expedition by presenting in China an exhibition of historic images
printed from the original photographs in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution Archives
in Washington. Researchers believe that all of these photographs were taken during the Clark expedition of 1908-9, although little is known about some of the images.
In conjunction with this installation, the Clark also presented rare original copies of Through Shên-kan
to Chinese municipalities along the expedition route, and has translated the book into Mandarin. In 2011 and 2012, the Clark shared masterpieces from its collection of French Impressionist paintings with leading museums in Beijing and Shanghai, furthering the relationship between the institution’s artistic legacy and the country Sterling Clark studied so carefully early in his life.
This project was organized by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute with support from the Fernleigh Foundation and the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation
In 2015, a cultural exchange fellowship was developed by the Clark Art Institute and the Shanghai Museum
, Chinese Museums Association (CMA), and other partners in China to bring rising Chinese museum curators to the Clark for training in professional museum practice. Over fifteen months, the Clark will host six visiting scholars from China who will participate in a semester-long experience in a variety of museum and academic activities. In its inaugural semester, the Clark is hosting Gong Xin and Huang He, two emerging leaders from the exhibition and conservation staff at the Shanghai Museum. Candidates were nominated by their directors and entrusted with a research project suitable to the nature and opportunities of the fellowship. Fellows are encouraged to experience the intellectual life of the Clark and Williamstown, including participation in conferences, symposia, workshops, colloquia, and lectures by visiting scholars.
The program was made possible by a $125,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation