What They Learned: Ellie Burns ’21

The history major and religion minor used her thesis to investigate the history of Chinese porcelain in the global economy and the Sino-Western exchange.

Ellie Burns’ thesis investigates the material culture significance of Chinese porcelain and ceramic goods within the context of the English exploration of exotica. The history major’s research focuses on porcelain’s significance in the expanding global economy and consumer culture in the 18th century, and centers chinoiserie porcelain as a major proponent of cross-cultural interaction. Her thesis, “Displaying China: The Impact of Chinoiserie in Shaping British Identity and Culture in the 18th Century,” was derived from a paper she wrote for an Enlightenment history course during sophomore year with Professor Lisa Graham, who later served as her thesis advisor. 

Her paper focused on three things: une maladie de porcelain, the porcelain craze that consumed Europe at the start of the 16th century; the cult of chinoiserie, which explains the desire for Chinese-inspired designs and goods; and singerie, monkey figurines dressed as humans who imitate human behavior.

“Through examining porcelain singerie figurines and the popularity of chinoiserie, I explored the connection of material goods to social and cultural changes occurring in Enlightenment France,” said Burns. 

Burns’ interest in material culture also inspired her thesis. In working with Chinese porcelain as primary sources, she learned of the ways material items can serve as history-telling artifacts. 

“Scholarly literature tends to group its analysis of chinoiserie porcelain as one example of design within the larger chinoiserie style and craze, looking no further than design shifts and cycles of popularity,” she said. “My work lies at the center of previous research to place porcelain as not only a product or reflection of the time but a roadmap tracking different shifts in history, an influencer of culture and commerce.”

Burns also used other unique primary sources, such as paintings, 18th-century magazines and papers, and travel journals. She realized an importance in having a diverse set of resources. “The combination of texts, objects and images provides a new perspective on cultural conceptions of chinoiserie porcelain in England, allowing me to explore how the display and usage of chinoiserie porcelain transformed a material good into a force in the creation of a British sense of national identity,” said Burns.

Working with Graham as an advisor, Burns was able to narrow the scope and integrate her research.“[She] had fantastic insights into blending my visual and textual primary sources to complement one another,” she said. 

What are your plans for the future?
Starting in August, I will be working as a full-time upper school history teacher and soccer coach at a school in Atlanta, GA. One of the reasons I’ve always loved history is how interdisciplinary the field is. Through my thesis, I could combine my love for art and art history with the critical thinking and research skills I learned during my time at Haverford to reimagine what constitutes a historical source, in this case, beautiful works of porcelain! As a future teacher, I want to bring the skills I learned at Haverford to encourage my students to think critically and creatively about how we study history to uncover new ways of interpreting the past.

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.