When Ingrid Furniss was 11 years old, she and her family spent three months in Europe visiting museums, learning about different cultures, and exploring archaeological sites, including Pompeii and the Roman coliseum.
“I decided, at the age of 11, that I would be an archaeologist,” she says.
Over the years, Furniss, assistant professor of art, refined that interest. An early fascination with Egyptology gave way to an interest in Asia–particularly Chinese–art and archaeology.
As she prepares for her second academic year at Lafayette, Furniss is reaping the benefits of her years of study and research.
Her recent book, Music in Ancient China: An Archaeological and Art Historical Study of Strings, Winds, and Drums during the Eastern Zhou and Han Periods (2008), has won the 2010 Nicolas Bessaraboff Prize, awarded by the American Musical Instrument Society. The annual award is given to the most distinguished book-length work in English which “promotes the study of the history, design, and use of musical instruments in all cultures and from all periods.”
Furniss says the path that led to her study of ancient Chinese musical instruments had much to do with circumstance. As an undergraduate at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., she was unable to study Egyptian hieroglyphs and chose to study Chinese instead.
“I wanted to study an ancient language,” she says, explaining that the choice led her to earn a B.A. degree in Asian studies there, and to earn an M.A. in Asian studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.
Furniss adds that her lifelong interest in music, including years of viola and violin study, led her to learn more about ancient instruments. She went on to earn a certificate in museum studies at University of Washington in Seattle, and a second M.A. and Ph.D. in Chinese art and archeology from Princeton University.
During her book research, she traveled to museums in the United States, Europe, China, and even India, to examine instruments and early works of art depicting musical performance.
“I focused on wooden instruments, which really had never been done before,” Furniss says, explaining that she included woodwinds, drums, and especially strings.
Still, Furniss says, she couldn’t help but be utterly captivated by a set of 65 bronze bells excavated from a tomb.
“Those bells were tuned so perfectly that they could form a chromatic scale,” she says, explaining that each could play two independent tones, perfectly tuned to either a major third or minor third apart. “That’s an amazing feat.”
Furniss says her interest in China hasn’t waned since the book’s publication. She’s looking for new ideas and projects, and spent part of last summer traveling from northwest to northeast China, along the “Silk Road,” visiting Buddhist temples and ancient sites, searching for more representations of musical instruments.
At Lafayette, Furniss’ courses include Survey of Asian Art, Art and Architecture of World Traditions, Japanese Art and Architecture, and Chinese Art and Architecture.
“One of the things I love doing is showing students YouTube videos of ancient musical instruments being played,” she says. “It shows the instruments not as objects alone but as the sources of music.”
During the 2011 interim break, Furniss will be abandoning Chinese instruments for a while, and returning to her early interests as she co-teaches an interdisciplinary course–Art, Archeology, and Engineering in Egypt.