Professor Dame Jessica Rawson DBE FBA

Professor Dame Jessica Rawson DBE FBA

Honorary Fellow, Warden 1994–2010

Professor Dame Jessica Rawson was Merton’s first female Warden, serving for 16 years from 1994 to 2010. She was also Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford from 2006 to 2011 and was appointed Professor of Chinese Art and Archaeology at Oxford in 2000.

Jessica read History at the University of Cambridge and then went on to the University of London, where she completed a further degree in Chinese Language and Literature. She began her career in the Civil Service as Assistant Principal at the Ministry of Health, before going on to the British Museum to serve over the years 1968-1994 as Assistant Keeper, Deputy Keeper, and finally, Keeper of the Department of Oriental Antiquities. During her time there, Professor Rawson was an integral part of the Museum, organising several inter-departmental exhibitions, including Chinese Ornament: The Lotus and the Dragon and Mysteries of Ancient China. She headed the renovation of the Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of Oriental Antiquities, opened by Her Majesty The Queen in November 1992. Since moving to Oxford, she has remained involved in the life of the British Museum, taking part in a second renovation of the Hotung Gallery, which was re-opened by the Queen in 2017.

Professor Rawson’s primary academic interests are in early China’s history and material culture. She is today best known for her research on the interaction of the peoples of central China with those along the borders with northern Eurasia, which resulted in major innovations, such as the introduction of metallurgy to China. She has organised visits with Chinese colleagues to Mongolia, Siberia and Central Asia to explore these important developments. Jessica has presented her recent research as a Global Fellow at Peking University in 2017 and as an Academic Fellow at the China Academy of Art, Hangzhou from 2017 to 2019. From 2011 to 2016, she held a Leverhulme Trust grant for the project ‘China and Inner Asia, 1000-200 BC: Interactions that Changed China’. Over the years, Jessica has worked extensively in academia and continues to do so, supervising graduate students at Oxford. She has also taught at the Universities of Cambridge, London and East Anglia, and has held visiting professorships at the universities of Heidelberg and Chicago. For the academic year 2013-2014, she held the position of Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge.

Jessica has been a member of a number of academic committees in Britain and around the world, especially in China. She has received many honours, including her appointment as a Fellow of the British Academy in 1990, her election as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2012, and her receipt in 2017 of the Charles Lang Freer Medal from the Freer Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. She was made an Honorary Fellow of Merton following the end of her Wardenship in 2010 and an Honorary Professor at Peking University in 2019. She has been recognised multiple times in the Queen’s Honours lists. Professor Rawson received a CBE in 1994 and was awarded the title of Dame in 2002 for services to oriental studies.

Her time at Merton

Professor Rawson’s Wardenship at Merton was very active. She strongly supported the College’s academic achievements, nurturing the Tutorial System and raising funds for new teaching and research Fellowships. She oversaw several key refurbishments throughout the College, as well as the construction of new buildings, not least the Finlay Building and the much-celebrated TS Eliot Lecture Theatre. She also made sure that the cultural and spiritual life of the College continued to thrive with, for example, the creation of the Choral Foundation in 2008 and the publication of a study of the Chapel Glass. In 2007, toward the end of her Wardenship, Jessica launched the 750th Anniversary Campaign, which raised a staggering £30 million by 2014, ensuring that the excellence she sustained and expanded during her time as Warden continues. "All Merton’s Wardens are part of its history but Jessica, I suspect, will be part of its legend," commented Professor Richard McCabe, Sub-Warden at the time, in a speech given at Professor Rawson’s farewell dinner in Hall in July 2010. He went on to say: "she will be remembered not as the first female Warden but much more properly and appropriately as one of the great Wardens." It is hard to argue with that.

Merton & Me

Thinking of the first day you walked through the Merton Lodge arch, what was your first impression?


Do you have a particular memory that stands out from your time at Merton?

The recitation of the College grace on the first evening in Hall, marking the beginning of every academic year.

Tell us something about yourself that we would not know.

I think of myself as an outsider.

What tips would you give your younger self to prepare for the career you’ve achieved?

Persistence despite opposition.

Describe Merton in three words.

Beautiful and hidden.

A lecture by Professor Dame Jessica Rawson

Professor Rawson gave an online talk, part of our 40 Years Series of lectures, on Thursday 12 November 2020. Her subject was, 'What does China’s past tell us about China today?'.

Watch the lecture