Some of the world’s intellectual giants have served as faculty at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., including Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Erwin Panofsky. This coming year, Ingrid Furniss will add her name to that impressive list. The assistant professor of art was accepted into its School for Historical Studies for the spring semester.
The Institute for Advanced Study is one of the world’s leading centers for theoretical research and intellectual inquiry. Each year, it appoints approximately 40 members, who are in residence for a year or a semester. Furniss, who will be on leave the entire academic year, will be in residence at Lafayette in the fall while she travels to various museums and libraries in the northeast for research. She also plans to travel to China before beginning her residency at the institute in the spring.
Furniss will spend her year away from the classroom studying the impact of Silk Road trade on ancient Chinese music and culture. Her work will result in several journal articles and contribute to her second book. She has had a passion for ancient Chinese musical practices and their intersection with art and archaeology since earning her Ph.D. from Princeton University in 2005. Her first book, Music in Ancient China: An Archaeological and Art Historical Study of Strings, Winds, and Drums during the Eastern Zhou and Han Periods, earned the 2010 Nicolas Bessaraboff Prize from the American Musical Instrument Society.
As Furniss explains, China was the easternmost participant in Silk Road trade and was deeply impacted by travelers from Persia, India, Central Asia, and possibly Rome—all regions that the early Chinese regarded as peripheral and even barbaric. In addition to wares for sale, these peoples brought with them their religious and cultural traditions. Her research is truly an interdisciplinary study; it will combine archaeological, art historical, and textual study of how Silk Road trade influenced the music of pre-modern China.
“My work will argue that the lute, a musical instrument that likely originated in the Near East or Central Asia, was a highly charged object replete with associations of ethnic and political identity, emotion, and gender in China,” says Furniss. “As such, the lute was a crucial vehicle for understanding the interaction between the Chinese ‘center’ and the non-Chinese ‘periphery.’”
Furniss’ love for music archaeology spills into nearly every class she teaches. In fact, one of her favorite monuments to discuss is the tomb of a very different Marquis than the College’s namesake—the Marquis Yi of Zeng. The Marquis’ tomb contains more than 100 musical instruments, including a set of 65 bronze bells that can reproduce many notes on modern piano. The importance of music in ancient China cannot be underestimated, Furniss says. It reveals political and social attitudes, religious beliefs, rituals, and even everyday activities that people enjoyed.
Furniss teaches a First-Year Seminar called “Silk Roads and Sea Routes,” which is based in part on her own travels to India and along the Chinese portion of the Silk Road. Along with Li Yang, assistant professor of Chinese, she is leading a group of Lafayette students this summer in the interim-abroad course China: An Ancient Civilization and a New Global Power.
Through her book research and residence at the institute, Furniss hopes to deepen her own understanding and awareness of Chinese culture and the impact of Silk Road trade on its development and transformation. That understanding is intrinsically tied to her goals as an educator.
“My goal as a professor is to inspire a lifelong appreciation for art and its value as a tool for understanding the world while also promoting increased openness and tolerance towards different cultures and peoples,” she says. “The Silk Road is an important model, revealing the social, cultural, and economic benefits of global interaction and understanding.”