Graduate Student in Education Brings Cultural Insight to the Harris Collection

In 2011, the late Dr. Frederick Harris donated his repertoire of sumi-e and watercolor paintings and sketchbooks, as well as he and his wife’s personal collection of artifacts and that span hundreds of years of Japanese tradition to Ohio University Libraries.

Processing of this collection, arranging, organizing and describing the artifacts, began soon after the acquisition, but even with a dedicated and knowledgeable staff, project director Gary Ginther and Dr. Marion Lee, who consulted on the project, realized they would need added help. They enlisted the aid of multiple students and faculty members including that of Pinni Hu.

Pinni, a graduate student in the College of Education, was born in Shanghai, China and moved to Japan at the age of thirteen.

“I had a hard time when I first moved to Japan because I didn’t know any Japanese language [or] the culture there. Luckily, I had a lot of good friends and teachers who helped me a lot,” described Pinni.

After coming to OHIO for four months in 2006 through an exchange program with OHIO’s sister school Chubu University, she decided to apply for graduate studies. It was here that she met Dr. Marion Lee, associate professor of Art History, and struck up a friendship.

When Pinni heard that Dr. Lee was working on a project with the Libraries involving Asian Art, she offered some assistance. “I heard the collection is mainly from East Asia. Since I speak both Chinese and Japanese, and I am familiar with both cultures, I thought maybe I can help,” said Pinni.

Although Pinni studies education, she is no stranger to art. Pinni worked closely with her father, a Japanese calligrapher, for many years. The project immediately caught her attention.

“I learned that language and culture is really important for this collection. There [were] people from [the] art major, but since they do not speak the language, sometimes they had [a] hard time to even find out what the item is [used] for,” said Pinni.

Pinni’s service was essential in the processing of the collection because of the important connection to Asian culture that the items within it held. She acted as a translator and helped provide insight into cultural concepts, which helped to identify items from the collection, what they were used for and roughly the time period or place of origin to which they belonged.

Pinni’s father also played an important role. When Pinni and her colleagues would hit a roadblock they used modern technology to continue research taking photos with an iPad and emailing them to Pinni’s father for immediate translation.

“…The experience was so rich for me. I like everyone who was there, and I also love all the art/items that we worked on,” she said.

Because of her input on the project, Pinni was asked to share her experiences during a causal workshop entitled, “Interpreting Visual Objects in the Harris Collection: Studio Practice, Art History, Linguistics, Ethnography,” which provided faculty, students and community members an opportunity to learn more about the collection.  At the workshop, Pinni spoke on the cultural value that was hidden within the items.

She emphasized the importance of the cultural and historical background of the pieces in the collection and that each artifact helps to tell the story of a time and place. “A lot of them are not just object[s],” she said. “We need to have more people to look at [the collection], and really value it. Display it and use it, as [was] Harris’ wish.”

Photo courtesy of Pinni Hu.

Pinni describes her work with the Harris Collection during the informal workshop held in February.