- 1 The research upon which this paper is based was made possible by funding from the UK Economic and S (...)
1Museums manufacture narratives1. Through displays of objects and accompanying text, they produce representations of Others for consumption by diverse audiences. In the case of Tibetan culture, curatorial staff in British and American museums cater to a variety of audiences, including Tibetans settled in the UK and US, and non-Tibetan Tibetan Buddhists. In producing narratives and representations of Tibetanness in their displays, staff contend with these audiences’ preconceptions about Tibetan culture. Tibet has been imagined in a very particular way by Westerners for over a century: for example, as a fantasy world replete with mythical beasts, fantastic treasures and magical beings capable of defying death (Bishop, 1989; Lopez, 1998; Schell, 2000; Brauen, 2004). Following the oppositional dualism which operates in Orientalist logic, Westerners have historically been simultaneously repelled and fascinated by Tibetan art; horrified and enchanted by Tibetan Buddhism (Lopez, 1998: 4; cf. Lopez, 1994). It is through the latter, Tibetan Buddhism and especially the personage of the Dalai Lama, that most Westerners come into contact with Tibet, hence the emphasis has been on Buddhism in popular Western discourse concerning the region.
- 2 The research upon which this paper is based was conducted during winter 2010 and summer 2011. Where (...)
2Tibetanness is predominantly configured for British and American museum-goers through the twin prisms of art and Buddhism (cf. Harris, 2012). This paper focuses on the prominence of Buddhist narratives in displays of Tibetan culture at both art museums and those with a more ethnographic mission. This is expressed most overtly in British and especially American museums in the construction of shrines. Whilst “artistic” modes of display work to promote the aesthetic aspects of objects (cf. Alpers, 1991), immersive displays, such as the shrines, offer a different experience. These displays endeavour to contextualise objects by putting them back in their original environments, thereby encouraging viewers to appreciate them from a more indigenous perspective (cf. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 1990). In the case of the shrines, however, the simulated indigenous context is a sacred one, and thus strongly antithetical to the secular space of Western museums. This paper explores how this contradiction plays out in the context of the shrine displays: how is sacred space created in the museum? What effect do immersive display techniques have upon visitors? How does this approach affect visitors’ perceptions of Tibetan culture? The creation of sacred space within the secular museum raises several interesting ethical questions, which this paper also explores. Following trends in contemporary museology, I discuss Tibetans’ attitudes towards their religious material culture, asking whether it is necessary, from their perspective, for museum staff to display religious objects in sanctified spaces such as the shrines. This paper also reflects upon the broader ethical issue of cultural representation: how do shrine displays articulate with existing Western discourses on Tibetanness? Do these displays enable museum-goers to gain a fuller understanding of Tibetan culture? Or do they risk lapsing into disempowering neo-Orientalist narratives and stereotypes of Tibetanness (cf. Lopez, 1994)?2
- 3 Throughout this paper I have used phonetic renderings of Tibetan words in English, providing bracke (...)
- 4 In 2012 the display in Room 47a was altered by curator John Clarke to include a case on the secular (...)
- 5 I am indebted to John Clarke, curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, for the information provid (...)
3The Victoria and Albert Museum in London possesses a substantial Tibetan collection c.1300 objects strong. Approximately half of this collection can be characterised as religious: it includes c.130 tangka3 (Tibetan Buddhist scroll paintings), and c.400 sculptures (mostly images of Buddhist deities). The collection also has strengths in Tibetan metalwork, including jewellery (c.700 items). However, although much of this more secular material is also of high aesthetic merit, it was not proportionately represented in displays in 2010, which were dominated by Buddhist objects. In 2010, the majority of Tibetan objects were displayed in Room 47a, “South-East Asian and Himalayan Art”. This gallery mainly comprised examples of religious sculpture (mostly Buddhist and Hindu) from these regions.4 Tibetan textiles, secular vessels and other objects of everyday life, which are also components of the Victoria and Albert Museum collection, were mostly held in storage.5 Likewise at the British Museum, secular Tibetan material displayed in the permanent galleries in 2010 was dwarfed by the comparative abundance of religious objects. In “The Himalayas” section of the Asia gallery, less than a third of the objects exhibited could be described as secular. This bias was reiterated in the only text-panel installed in this section (entitled “Images of Buddhism”), which focused on Tibetan Buddhism’s Indian origins.
- 6 Buddhism is not the only religion practised by Tibetans. In particular, the religions of Bon and Is (...)
4Trying to define Tibetan objects as either “secular” or “religious” can be problematic. The Buddhist religion has played and continues to play a major role in Tibetan cultural life (e.g. Kapstein, 2007; Snellgrove and Richardson,  2003; Dreyfus, 2002), so much so that it might be argued that it imbues almost all aspects of it.6 This is reflected in Tibetan material culture. For example historically, amulet boxes (gau), which contain sacred material and are sometimes consecrated, also functioned as ornamental elements of formal dress in a manner similar to jewellery. Today the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, based in Dharamshala, India, uses replica gau made from painted wood and coloured plastic as components of costumes for performances (these do not have sacred contents). Gau fulfil both religious and secular functions simultaneously; thus the two realms are blended, not discrete. The example of gau points towards the possibility of a more straightforward classification of religious material culture, however: one which includes objects used in rituals, and especially consecrated objects. This category would include figures of deities (ku), and tangka (religious scroll paintings), for example (see below).
- 7 The propriety of the term “aesthetics” for cross-cultural analysis has been extensively debated wit (...)
- 8 See Harris, 2012; Livne, 2013; E. Martin, 2015, 2012 and 2010 for a discussion of the collecting pr (...)
5The Victoria and Albert Museum and, to a large extent, the British Museum are museums of art (the former emphasises the decorative arts). As such, their interest in material culture is primarily “aesthetic”7; this has led staff to display “fine” objects in a highly decontextualized manner, for example, in well-lit glass vitrines, identified only by a few words on a small museum label and occasionally a larger panel of text. This type of display, which in this paper I term “artistic” (cf. Harris, 2012), enhances the visual availability of the object and thereby encourages its appreciation from an aesthetic standpoint. In short, objects become “art”, and are valued for their visual qualities rather than as tangible excerpts of a wider cultural whole (e.g. Alpers, 1991; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 1990; Phillips and Steiner, 1999; Kratz, 2011). In the Tibetan case, objects which fit Western-style definitions of fine art (i.e. those that fall most easily into categories such as “painting” and “sculpture”) tend to be religious (cf. Harris, 2012). Hence, displays at art institutions focussing on these objects consequently privilege religious themes.8
6Art museums in the US similarly privilege Buddhist material culture in their Tibetan displays. At the Rubin Museum of Art, New York, the two permanent galleries housed on the lower exhibition floors are composed entirely of religious objects collected from all over the Himalayan region, including Tibet. Mostly these are tangka and statues (ku), which are employed to educate visitors about the iconography of Himalayan Buddhist art in the exhibition “Gateway to Himalayan Art”, and to illustrate regional artistic traditions in the exhibition “Masterworks: Jewels of the Collection”.
7The exhibitions at the Newark Museum, New Jersey, founded in 1909 by John Cotton Dana, combine both “artistic” and “ethnographic” modes of display. Dana saw museums as “tools to bring art to the people, to uplift and enoble [sic] them” (Reynolds, 1992: 692). He was not only interested in “fine” objects, however, but also the “ ‘common’ artefacts of all the world’s cultures”; he argued “a culture is represented by its aprons and cooking pots (providing they are beautiful and well-made) as well as by its paintings” (ibid.). Thus Dana’s legacy and outlook ensured that the museum’s ethnographic collections were “seen as ‘World Art’ long before that phrase was invented” (Paine, 2013: 40–41).
- 9 These collections are formed substantially by material from the American Christian missionary Dr Al (...)
8Nonetheless, it is Buddhism, once again, which dominates the galleries at Newark. The previous curator, Valrae Reynolds, in large part conceived and installed these; the current curator at the museum, Katherine Paul, has added to her legacy with two galleries on a Tibetan Buddhist theme: “Chapel of the Masters” and “Chapel of the Fierce Protectors”. Paul, however, is also responsible for the installation of two new exhibitions (opened 2011) entitled “Red-Luster: Lacquer and Leatherworks of Asia” and “Tiaras to Toe Rings: Asian Ornaments”, which are more secular in orientation. These were deliberately themed to make the most of Newark’s jewellery and secular Tibetan collections;9 they were also intended to complicate the popular notion of Tibet as an isolated country by placing it firmly in a Central Asian trade narrative (K. Paul pers. comm.).
- 10 The majority of the Tibetan Buddhist material on view at the Horniman Museum is displayed in the mu (...)
- 11 In this paper I have chosen to focus on traditional styles of display in major art-historical museu (...)
9In 2011, the majority of the Newark Tibetan collection was displayed in a straightforwardly “artistic” manner: in vitrines and mounted on walls, identified and explained for visitors via object labels and text panels. Likewise, Tibetan objects displayed in the World Museum, Liverpool (UK), were also predominantly exhibited in this manner. Perhaps because of their more ethnographic approach, however, displays at both of these museums and at the Horniman Museum, London,10 also incorporated simulated Tibetan shrines. In the following, I describe three shrines installed at American museums in greater depth, going on to discuss why shrines might be described as “ethnographic”, as opposed to “artistic”, modes of display.11
10Newark’s Tibetan altar was first constructed in 1935. Initially conceived as a temporary tableau intended to provide a “meaningful setting” for the museum’s existing Tibetan collection, the altar was so popular with visitors that it was retained as a permanent feature of the exhibitions (Reynolds, 1991: 9, 29). In the mid-1980s it was renovated as part of a special project, “Tibet, the Living Tradition”, which involved the installation of eight galleries devoted to Tibetan culture. Although the altar had never been consecrated, it was felt that the visits and practices of Tibetan monks, dignitaries and other Buddhists had sanctified the space (K. Paul pers. comm.). Hence the decision was taken to hold a de-consecration ceremony, which was performed in January 1988 by the Venerable Ganden Tri Rinpoche. Remains of this altar were retained so they could be incorporated into the new structure (these were sealed in a cavity behind the new altar).
ill. 1 – Tibetan Buddhist altar
Painted by Phuntsok Dorje, 1988-90; commissioned by the Newark Museum, 1988 90.997
11The new shrine is located in the centre of the Tibetan galleries at the museum. Reached via galleries devoted to South and Southeast Asian art, the altar is located in a special area, set perpendicular to the gallery corridor. Phuntsok Dorje, a Tibetan artist trained in Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim, was employed as artist in residence by the museum to design and paint the new shrine. After preparing plans and models, he began to paint in May 1989; in total, the painting of the shrine took around eighteen months. Using bright primary colours of the type often seen in the newly erected Tibetan Buddhist monasteries of India, Phuntsok Dorje painted the pillars of the new shrine in red (following traditional practice), and decorated the border surmounting them with designs of lotuses, jewels, clouds, and several of the eight auspicious symbols (tashi dargyé). He decorated the capitals of the eight pillars with a lotus scroll and the ten syllables of the Kalachakra mantra. He also inscribed the mantra of Avalokiteshvara (Tib. Chenrezig), om mani padme hum, at the top of the pillars (Reynolds, 1991: 12–13).
- 12 The stupa, which takes the form of an elaborate burial mound or tomb, represents the Buddha’s death (...)
- 13 The kanjur contains the sermons and teachings of the Buddha; the entire scripture comprises 108 vol (...)
- 14 The fourteen-volume set in the Newark collection has been radiocarbon dated to c.1195, and may deri (...)
- 15 These offering bowls were obtained by Shelton from the ruins of Bathang Monastery (Reynolds, 1991: (...)
12The first few feet of the shrine area contain a display of religious and ritual objects combined with descriptive panels and labels; past these, the visitor is faced with a view of the altar itself. In the centre sits a large, gilt-copper figure of the historical Buddha, Buddha Shakyamuni (Chamdo, Kham, Tibet, 19th century). To the Buddha’s proper right is a Mongolian figure of an eleven-headed Avalokiteshvara (Tib. Chenrezig) (18th century, gilt-copper); to the Buddha’s proper left is a brass stupa (Tib. chorten) (Tibet, 12th century).12 To the rear of these figures hang five tangka featuring the Buddhas: in the centre, Akshobhya (in the form of Shakyamuni); to either side, Vairochana, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha and Amoghasiddi (Reynolds, 1991: 19–20). As in contemporary Tibetan shrines in South Asia and the Himalayas, the altar at Newark also houses religious scriptures on either side of the altar. At Newark, these include forty-two volumes of the kanjur;13 these derive from three different sets (Reynolds, 1991: 23, 30).14 Below the central figures and stupa are six butter-lamps (symbolising offerings of light) and a mandala offering garlanded with a kata (ceremonial white scarf). On the second step of the altar, below these, are several bowls dating between the 18th and 19th centuries. These contain various offerings (e.g. rice, barley, saffron water, incense, flowers).15
13Other altars followed the 1935 altar at The Newark Museum. New York actress, socialite and Tibet enthusiast Jacques Marchais opened her reconstruction of a Tibetan “lamasery” in 1947 in the grounds of her Staten Island property (Johnson, 2007). Marchais’ lamasery included a temple or “chanting hall” (as she termed it), a library, meditation cells and terrace, on which she intended Tibetan ritual dances to be performed (Lipton and Ragnubs, 1996). Her centre functioned simultaneously as an art institute and a religious space; she wrote that she intended the temple to be a site for “meditation” (idem: 4), and the terrace for Tibetan Buddhist ritual cham dance (Jonathan, n.d.). Although Marchais claims to have modelled the architecture of the centre upon the Potala, the visual appearance of the small complex is quite different. Constructed in locally sourced grey stone, Marchais’ centre nestles against the Staten Island hillside, shrouded in green trees and shrubs. The shrine, larger than that at the Newark Museum, dominates the complex, taking up most of the space in a separate building. Objects, including tangka and figures of deities (ku), are arrayed in several steps across an entire interior wall of this building; the remainder is given over to exhibitions.
ill. 2 – Tibetan altar at Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art
a. Jacques Marchais seated at the Tibetan altar in her centre on its opening day, September 28th 1947
b. View of the altar as it stands today at the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art
a. Image courtesy of the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art's Archives; b. Photo credit Sean P. Sweeney
14Marchais planned to use the centre to exhibit her Tibetan art collection, the “permanent Jacques Marchais Collection of Tibetan Ritual Art” (Lipton and Ragnubs, 1996: 6). Building a “replica” Tibetan complex was also her way of helping “humanity”; in a letter to a friend written in 1944 she wrote that she intended her centre to be “a cultural benefit to those persons of the Western World who are seeking a better understanding of their Oriental brothers—their art, their religion and their philosophy” (Marchais in Johnson, 2007: 86–87).
- 16 This exhibition comprised two shows: “The Tibetan Shrine from the Alice S. Kandell Collection”, and (...)
- 17 Since the departure of the Alice S. Kandell shrine, staff at the Rubin Museum have installed anothe (...)
- 18 At a conference at the Courtauld Gallery (London) in April 2012, Kandell explained her conflicting (...)
15The collection amassed by Tibet-enthusiast Alice S. Kandell has also toured the US configured as a shrine (Rhie and Thurman, 2009). It first opened in 2010 at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington D.C. as part of the exhibition “In the Realm of the Buddha”.16 In 2011, a smaller version of the shrine was exhibited at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York.17 For Alice Kandell, the creation of a shrine grew out of her passion for collecting Tibetan Buddhist art, whose beauty she was first attracted to during her visit to Sikkim to attend the coronation of her friend Hope Cooke and her husband, Sikkim’s then-Crown Prince, Palden Thondup Namgyal. Kandell began collecting in Nepal, purchasing her first item, a gau (amulet box) from a Tibetan refugee who had recently crossed over the border from Tibet.18 A visit to the shrine created by Tibetan art collector Philip Rudko in his New York apartment (a collection Kandell later acquired) inspired her to create her own. Although not a Buddhist herself, Kandell, in her preface to the catalogue for the shrine, writes: “Memories of being surrounded in the shrines and temples [of the Himalayas] kept coming back to me. I was at peace, immersed in the atmosphere of the paintings and bronzes of deities, the canopies above, the flickering butter lamps, and the columns decorated with brocades and dragons.” Wishing to “return the experience [of being in a Tibetan shrine] to the Tibetan people from whence it originated” Kandell created the shrine-exhibit which toured the US in 2010 and 2011 (Kandell in Rhie and Thurman, 2009: xi).
- 19 Compare Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s distinction between “in situ” (immersive) and “in context” (...)
16Unlike “artistic” modes of display, which emphasise the aesthetic (and especially visual) aspects of objects, shrine exhibits attempt to contextualise the objects they house. In this sense, they might be seen as more “ethnographic” in their orientation; they invite visitors to see and experience objects as they would (have) be(en) seen and experienced by Tibetan Buddhists, thereby, arguably, enabling visitors to better comprehend both them and the culture they represent.19 “Context”, in this case, comes from the surrounding assemblage of other objects, as well as the “scene” within which they are set: a Buddhist altar (chösham) or shrine-room (chökang). Immersive displays have a long history in ethnographic exhibitions dating back at least to the colonial era (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 1990: 397–407). Notably, they attempt to recreate a total cultural environment for the visitor—sometimes going as far as to include ethnographic subjects (i.e. people) as performers. Mimesis and metonymy are important techniques in this approach. But what do these displays achieve? Do they succeed as immersive displays, enabling visitors to access Tibetan Buddhist perspectives, or do they continue to be approached from an artistic/secular viewpoint?
17The shrine-displays use aesthetic effects, architectural features, and specialised lighting and sound in their attempts to mimic or create a sacred environment. For the Alice Kandell shrine, the intention to simulate a sacred environment was highly overt, hence perhaps why it achieved the most dramatic results of all three shrines discussed. The authors of an internal report on the exhibition whilst it was on display at the Freer and Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. noted that:
- 20 NB. A smaller version of the shrine was displayed at the Rubin Museum in New York in July 2011 (whe (...)
- 21 “A Study of Visitors to ‘In the Realm of the Buddha: The Tibetan Shrine from the Alice S. Kandell C (...)
The main goal of…[the shrine]…was to display Buddhist artwork in a way that simulated the sacred context it was originally created for. The gallery was a small room where more than two hundred objects20—bronze sculptures, thangkas (scroll paintings), ritual objects, textile banners, and painted furniture—from different Buddhist artistic schools throughout the twelfth through nineteenth centuries were placed according to a hierarchy that reflected the objects’ religious importance. The objects were thus arranged as they would be in an authentic Tibetan shrine, and not according to date, geographic region or other categories typically used to group art. A background soundtrack of chanting and dim lighting added to the effect of being in a real shrine.21
18A similar approach was used at the Rubin Museum, where the Alice Kandell shrine was displayed in 2011. The shrine was installed in a side room on the second floor. Reached by an opening off the brightly lit permanent gallery, the shrine, by contrast, was dimly lit. Special lights designed to emit a similar light quality to that of butter lamps had been produced especially for the exhibit. These left objects in semi-darkness. Recordings of monastic ritual chanting played quietly from hidden speakers, suffusing the shrine itself with sound but not penetrating into the permanent galleries beyond. Viewers were prevented from scrutinizing the objects on display (as they would a “normal” art museum collection) by barriers which blocked entry into the shrine area itself. Additionally, no information boards or labels were present in the shrine area. Information regarding the exhibition was instead relayed to the public via audio-stalls and a catalogue located at the rear of the room.
- 22 The first mandala produced in the West, a Kalachakra mandala, was created at the American Museum of (...)
- 23 The shrine which succeeded the Alice Kandell shrine at the Rubin Museum was inaugurated and blessed (...)
- 24 The Tibetan community of the New York area visit the museum infrequently (K. Paul pers. comm.). Pau (...)
19Aside from elements of staging, religious activity within all three museum-shrines has also been important in sanctifying these spaces. At the Jacques Marchais museum in recent decades local Buddhist monks (though not Tibetan Buddhists) are regularly invited to come and use the shrine space for prayer and other rituals. This space has also hosted several productions of particle (sand) mandalas by Tibetan Buddhist monks. One of these mandalas remains on display within the shrine.22 Other shrines have been visited by senior Buddhist clerics. The Alice Kandell shrine was blessed twice, once while on display in Washington D.C. and again while on display at the Rubin Museum in New York, this time by the 41st Sakya Trizin.23 The shrine at the Newark Museum was consecrated by none other than the 14th Dalai Lama himself, Tenzin Gyatso (Reynolds, 1991: 29). According to the curator of the Newark Museum, Katherine Paul, the museum’s shrine is also a regular site of Buddhist ritual (though not always Tibetan Buddhist ritual).24
20The signals projected by the shrines are at times confusing. At the Jacques Marchais museum, the rear and sides of the “temple” room are used for temporary and permanent exhibitions presented in cases and stands and accompanied by typical museum labelling (this is less prominent on the altar itself). The Newark Museum shrine is perhaps the least ambiguously “sacred” space. The altar itself is separated from the surrounding labelled exhibits, marking it out as a separate zone. Offering bowls are present (and filled) and, as with the shrine at the Jacques Marchais museum, it is possible to fully enter the sacred space and undertake ritual (although one wonders, in both cases, if ritual activities such as burning incense would be permitted by museum staff). At the Rubin Museum, by contrast, it was not possible to enter the main space of the shrine itself and perform ritual. Barriers kept museum-goers at arm’s-length from the exhibit, meaning that visitors effectively “looked into” the shrine from a darkened vestibule, rather than being able to walk into it to be “surrounded” or “immersed” in the way Kandell recalls of her own experiences in the Himalayas (Kandell in Rhie and Thurman, 2009: xi). Contrary to the more immersive experience possible at the Newark Museum, the physical cues given at the Rubin Museum were thus more limiting and confusing. They seemed to suggest that the shrine as a whole should be approached as a total object of visual interest, in other words, as an artwork (cf. Alpers, 1991). Washington Post reviewer Blake Gopnik, who reviewed the exhibition whilst it was on show at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington D.C., was certainly confused:
- 25 Gopnik’s review raises other important questions concerning the exclusion of contemporary material (...)
Of course, we museumgoers aren’t obliged to act like long-dead Tibetans. We may want to see and analyze the objects on display in detail, to our own secular ends—that’s what art museums are for, after all. And in that case, this “shrine” will not do the trick25 (Gopnik, 2010).
21Whilst respondents to the survey conducted by the Smithsonian’s Office of Policy and Analysis (who included seven practising Buddhists) did appear to regard the shrine as a sacred space, it is clear from their comments that they simultaneously viewed the objects on display as “art”. Several visitors, like Gopnik, criticised the dim lighting, which prevented them from examining objects closely, as one would an artwork (Office of Policy and Analysis, 2010).
22Gopnik was also plainly puzzled by the museum’s attempt to create “authentic” sacred space within its “secular” walls. Unbeknownst to Gopnik, this strategy is not new within museology. Partly as a result of new approaches to material culture (e.g. Miller, 2008; Gell, 1998; Davis, 1997), museums have recently begun to reassess the role of sacred objects within their collections. Curators have also recognised that religious objects may be better understood by visitors if their religious meanings and contexts are explicitly recognised and highlighted through displays (Paine, 2013: 1). As part of a process of post-colonial reassessment and restitution beginning twenty to thirty years ago, cultural groups, including faith groups, have also successfully demanded greater access to and control over “their” objects, requiring museums to make special arrangements for these items. In the case of some indigenous groups, this has meant restricting access to certain objects, re-evaluating conservation practices involving poisonous substances and allowing ritual specialists to “care” for “their” objects (for example, ceremonially “feeding” them) (Phillips, 2011; Peers and Brown, 2003; Clavir, 2002). Hence, in an attempt to show respect and cultural sensitivity towards the objects and wishes of source communities, curators have increasingly opted to display religious objects as religious objects, rather than as objets d’art, trying to find ways to simultaneously satisfy culturally specific codes of practice with regard to objects while also providing a valuable experience for non-indigenous viewers.
23Thus one possible way to analyse the efficacy of the museum shrines under discussion is to look at how far they succeed in displaying Tibetan religious objects in a culturally sensitive and ritually appropriate manner according to Tibetan perspectives. The 1935 Newark altar was designed to provide a “meaningful setting” for the religious objects it displayed (Reynolds, 1991: 9). How far is this context “meaningful” for Tibetan Buddhists? Is it necessary to display Buddhist sacred objects in the form of a shrine in order to satisfy Tibetan and Tibetan Buddhist notions of how these objects should be properly treated?
24The notion of sacredness with regard to objects in the Tibetan Buddhist perspective is extremely complex. To a large extent, the sacredness of an object is thought to depend upon the individual, and the level of Buddhist understanding or realisation they have achieved. The following discussion outlines some of the reasons why an object might be regarded as sacred according to Tibetan and Tibetan Buddhist perspectives and the ambiguity involved in this designation. It also discusses the question of how such objects ought to be treated in a museum context.
- 26 I am grateful to Geshe Lhakdor, Director of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (ltwa), Dhara (...)
25Earlier in this paper, I argued that it is possible to identify a particular class of Tibetan objects as less ambiguously sacred than others. These are the objects which have undergone rapné, the ritual of consecration. Consecration is most commonly applied to statues and tangka and involves the invitation of deities to inhabit the image prepared for them (Bentor, 1996: 292). In the process, the image is transformed, effectively becoming a deity, and henceforth requires special treatment and respect (Panchen Ötrul Rinpoche, 1987; Bentor, 1996). Respect might entail making sure both the image and the place in which it is kept are not “dirty”. The image itself should be kept physically clean, from dust for example, but also should not be exposed to “dirty” activities, such as sexual activities. It should be kept in a high place, and, if placed on an altar, the appropriate hierarchy should be observed (Geshe Lhakdor pers. comm.).26
26Tibetan Buddhists also respect religious objects through an embodied logic, which is expressed through certain practices, for example, touching sacred objects to the head. According to the same logic, in which the head is the locus of cleanliness and the feet the locus of pollution, one should not sleep with the feet pointing towards sacred images. Religious objects are also respected and used to generate merit for the practitioner through the practice of kora (circumambulation) which is generally conducted in a clockwise direction around the specific object, for example, a ku (deity statue), a temple or a mani stone (stone carved with sacred mantras).
27Returning to the issue of consecration, however, it is interesting to note that according to the Tibetan Buddhist perspective, it is not always necessary for an object to be consecrated in order to derive religious merit from it. As Panchen Ötrul Rinpoche explains:
The Tantras state that the ritual of consecration is not absolutely necessary. When done with the proper motivation, the merit acquired from making an offering to a Buddha or a Buddha’s statue is the same. Likewise, there is no difference in the merit obtained in making offering and paying respects to a statue made of gold or clay. Consecrating a statue through this ritual has no effect on its preciousness and its status as a source of merit is the same (Panchen Ötrul Rinpoche, 1987: 54).
Consecration is applied to objects in order to help less accomplished Buddhist practitioners, lay people for example, access the teachings of the Buddha. Whilst technically unnecessary, the consecration of objects and hearing the histories of their consecration often inspire faith in “ordinary people”. Through faith, these individuals are better able to understand and practise the teachings of the Buddha (ibid.). Objects like these thus function as supports (ten) for learning. Since they are only supports, they can and should be discarded when they are no longer useful (Geshe Lhakdor, pers. comm.).
28Many Tibetans I spoke with during my research highlighted the importance of motivation in evaluating a person’s moral and religious conduct, explaining that the effect of an action (good or bad, in terms of one’s store of merit) is judged not on the action itself or its results but on the motivation behind it. For example, two opposing actions might have the same karmic result since they both derived from good intentions, or the right motivation. Thus in the context of museum display, many research participants explained that as long as displays of religious objects were developed with good motivation they would be beneficial. For Geshe Lhakdor, Director of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (ltwa, Dharamshala) and curator of its museum, this motivation did not necessarily have to be Buddhist. Constructing a display of Tibetan religious objects with the purpose of educating others about Tibet and Tibetan culture satisfied his requirements for good motivation.
- 27 Monks from the Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Tserkarmo (Ladakh, India) offered this perspective to (...)
29The flexibility entailed in this perspective potentially renders a variety of different museum display techniques acceptable for the display of Tibetan religious objects. For example, many Tibetans I spoke to did not perceive “artistic” modes of display to be inappropriate for Tibetan religious objects, since they largely adhere to the basic rules of respect outlined above. Moreover, the majority of Tibetans also stated that there is no problem with non-believers viewing such objects from a non-religious, or non-Buddhist (i.e. “artistic”) perspective; likewise, they would not wish to restrict viewing to a nangpa (Buddhist) audience. In fact, they argued, viewing such sacred objects has positive effects for practitioners and non-practitioners alike.27 Hence opening up viewing to diverse audiences might be regarded as beneficial. Thus, whilst a Western curator might assume that displaying such objects in the form of a shrine is more respectful and appropriate, from the Tibetan Buddhist perspective the issue appears not to be of especial importance. Rather, the onus is on the individual Buddhist, their level of mental devotion and motivation towards these objects and the teachings they represent.
- 28 See e.g. Ortner, 1978; Shakya, 1993; Samuel, 1993; French, 1995; Dreyfus, 2002; Pirie, 2006 and oth (...)
- 29 See for example Hess, 2009; Klieger, 2002; Korom, 1997; Harris, 1999 and 2012, and Diehl, 2002 on T (...)
30Perhaps for these reasons, many Tibetans I have spoken to see no contradiction in the creation of Tibetan shrines (i.e. sacred space) within the secular context of museums. This may be part of a wider issue pertaining to Western museum logic, however. Writing on First Nations art, Ruth Phillips describes how in Western thought there exists a “toggle switch” between “sacred” and “secular”, which is not present in the same way in Native American thinking (Phillips, 2011: 94). The same might be argued for Tibetan perception, although for different reasons. I have already described some of the blurry conceptual lines between “sacred” and “secular” in terms of the Tibetan object world; there is also an argument to be made that Tibetan Buddhist attitudes towards the everyday world inflect so much of many Tibetans’ daily lives that thinking about objects or situations as either “sacred” or “secular” in a dichotomous fashion does not accurately reflect many Tibetans’ experience.28 However, it is important to highlight the diversity of Tibetan experience in the context of the contemporary diaspora.29
- 30 During my period of research, the museum at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives was undergoin (...)
31The old displays at the museum of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamshala illustrated the conflation of “sacred” and “secular” particularly well. The library and its museum were initially designed in the 1970s to house the important religious objects, including precious relics and Buddhist texts, brought from Tibet by refugees in the early years of exile. Whilst texts were separately stored in the library of the building, a museum room was set up as a kuten khang (shrine/image chamber) to house the images and objects which had been gifted to the Dalai Lama by refugees for his safekeeping (Harris 2012: 163; Harris, 1999). The collection of the museum is thus almost entirely “religious”; it is dominated in particular by deity statues or ku. In early museum leaflets, the differences in the attitudes and motivations of the different prospective audiences were explicitly acknowledged and accommodated. Foreign visitors were encouraged to “express reverential admiration for the neatly displayed icons, thangkas, artefacts, and other cultural objects on view”, whilst Tibetans were expected to “come to make obeisance” (Newsletters of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1976 & 1977 respectively, quoted by Singh, 2010: 138–39). Indeed, Tibetan visitors to the old museum treated it as they would a temple, removing their shoes on entry, making offerings to the images, completing prostrations and circumambulating the building (Harris, 1999; Harris 2012: 163).30
- 31 Though see Carol Duncan (1991, 1995) on ritual in art museums.
32Whilst in a Western worldview “sacred” and “secular” are often opposed, in Tibetan conceptions they bleed into one-another to a much greater extent. Thus curators of museums, popularly conceptualised in the West as institutions of secular education, must negotiate a paradox.31 Whilst it may not be problematic from a Tibetan perspective to exhibit Tibetan religious objects in a more “secular” fashion, as beautiful, high-quality “art”, presenting them in that way risks non-Buddhist publics misunderstanding the religious significance of such objects. But the alternative under discussion, display as a shrine, presents other pitfalls and invites different critiques, in particular, of exoticism and Orientalism.
- 32 Line of poetry composed by exiled Tibetan poet, Tenzin Tsundue (from his poem “My Tibetanness” publ (...)
33In his review, Blake Gopnik raises the issue of exoticism—do such exhibitions as these, which deliberately re-create a religious environment, actually point up the continuing existence of patronising attitudes towards Eastern religions? Does their very existence demonstrate “the condescension that we still dish out to foreign cultures” (Gopnik, 2010)? He argues:
If the National Gallery had installed a working Catholic altar, complete with choirboys and chalices, in its current show of sacred Spanish art, we’d have been up in arms. But we have such a hard time taking ‘exotic’ religions such as Buddhism truly, deeply seriously—which would include acknowledging the challenge they pose to our museums’ secular traditions—that we act as though they are innocent amusements (Gopnik, 2010).
34Writing in the context of Indian sacred images, Tapati Guha-Thakurta criticises curators’ attempts to bring religion into the museum, arguing that this practice, which emphasises religion as the “all-important marker of tradition, authenticity and of the ‘original’ cultural lives of all such expropriated Indian objects” closely converges “with new modes of Orientalism, promulgated not just by Western museums and media but equally by the different cultural agencies of the Indian nation-state” (Guha-Thakurta, 2007: 635).
35As many scholars have discussed at length (e.g. Bishop, 1989; Lopez, 1998; Brauen, 2004; Harris, 1999, 2012), Tibet has been the subject of major Orientalist fantasies and Western appropriations. I sketched some of these at the beginning of this paper. In particular, Tibetan Buddhism plays an important role in exotic characterisations of Tibet and Tibetanness. It has been painted both as a sinister and superstitious cult—a degraded form of Theravada Buddhism (especially by some of the first Westerners to encounter it, including L. A. Waddell) and also a magical “tonic” for the ailing “spirit” of the West (Lopez, 1998: 10; cf. Lopez, 1994). Tibetan Buddhism was a major source for Theosophical thought and continues to inspire New Age spiritualism (Lopez, 1994). Many exiled Tibetan monks now give teachings in the West, and have established Dharma centres of their own. The Dalai Lama regularly teaches on both sides of the Atlantic, and is perhaps the single-most important individual through whom foreigners hear about Tibet.
- 33 “A Study of Visitors to ‘In the Realm of the Buddha: The Tibetan Shrine from the Alice S. Kandell C (...)
- 34 Ibid: 22.
36The display of Tibetan shrines within museum contexts may be seen to contribute to, rather than counter, still-popular magical and mystical characterisations of Tibet and its people as peaceful, happy Buddhists, adherents of an “exotic” religion. As Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has argued, “in situ” (immersive) displays can be so overwhelming in their “realistic effects” that they can “subvert curatorial efforts to focus the viewer’s attention on particular ideas or objects” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 1990: 390). With its simulated “twinkling … Tibetan yak-butter lamps”, “lavish silks” and “effect of awe and richness” (Gopnik, 2010) it might be argued that the Alice Kandell shrine, and perhaps also those on display at other museums, falls precisely into this trap. The authors of the Smithsonian’s internal review of “In the Realm of the Buddha” pick up on several themes arising in visitor comment books which reflect those Lopez identifies as components of Tibetan Orientalism (Lopez, 1994 and 1998). Notably, Tibet was frequently described by visitors to the exhibitions as “hidden”,33 a phrase which recalls James Hilton’s Shangri-La—a concealed valley in the Himalayas, a haven of peace, tranquillity and scholarly learning which magically extends the life of its occupants. “Hiddenness” is a significant trope of Tibetan Orientalism for reasons other than Hilton’s fiction, however. Lopez describes how Tibet was consistently portrayed as isolated and closed during the nineteenth century, the period in which both Britain and Russia made attempts to establish relations with the government in Lhasa but were rebuffed (Lopez, 1994). Visitors’ comments, elicited via interviews, also stress sensations of otherworldliness and spirituality. The authors of the survey also comment that interviewees were eager to remark on their “contemplative” experiences, using descriptors such as “peaceful”, “serene”, “refreshing” and “calming”. Other interviewees noted that they had felt “positive energy” and a “deep compassionate presence” inside the shrine.34
- 35 An excerpt from the same poem (“My Tibetanness”) by Tenzin Tsundue (Tsundue, 2002: 13).
37Tibetans in Dharamshala are increasingly aware of the prevailing stereotype of Tibetanness internalized by many visiting Westerners, which paints them as “serene monks and bubbly traditionalists” (Tsundue, 2002: 13). Museum shrines filled with “traditional” religious objects do little to contradict this image. As Lopez (1994, 1998) and McLagan (2002) have warned, the danger of emphasising religion as the central element of Tibetan culture is that it discourages the wider world from seeing the exiled government as a credible political entity, thereby condemning Tibetan refugees to remain only “the world’s sympathy stock” (Tsundue, 2002: 13).35 As McLagan has argued, such representations can be depoliticising and disenfranchising since they tap “into a discourse of ‘otherness’ that can deny social actors their historical agency and contemporaneity” (McLagan, 2002: 91).
- 36 “A Study of Visitors to ‘In the Realm of the Buddha: The Tibetan Shrine from the Alice S. Kandell C (...)
38Authors of the study conducted by staff of the Freer and Sackler Galleries noted that reactions by both press and museum-goers to the Alice Kandell shrine were unusually strong, “intense and varied”.36 Compared to other exhibitions at the Galleries, the authors noted that “The Tibetan Shrine”:
…received above average proportions both of superior ratings (visitors excited by the exhibit) and poor, fair and good ratings (visitors critical of the exhibit in some way); and a below average proportion of excellent ratings (visitors who were neither excited enough to rate the exhibition superior nor critical to the point of rating it lower)…Typically, as the proportion of visitors who rate an exhibition superior increases, the proportion who mark it poor, fair or good decreases, and vice versa. That is, normally as more visitors are excited by the exhibition, less [sic] are critical.37
At the exhibition of the Alice Kandell shrine in Washington D.C., however, this was not the case. These responses point to the paradox at the centre of this paper: there are no right answers to the questions raised, just as there is no single, correct way to represent Tibetan objects and culture. Rather “culture”, like museum displays, is multiply authored and differently experienced by diverse actors in varied locations. Nevertheless, the investigation of representational practices commonly employed in museums remains important, and in this case reveals several problems, as this paper has demonstrated.
39In particular, two broad issues have emerged: firstly, the problematic extent to which Buddhism is emphasised in both “artistic” and “ethnographic” displays of Tibetan objects at British and American museums; following on from this, how display narratives emphasising Buddhism, especially those promoted via immersive shrine-displays, threaten to confirm rather than destabilise popular Western discourse on Tibet, including Orientalist stereotypes. As I have argued, the overwhelming aesthetic effects generated by the shrines can work against curatorial efforts to convey particular concepts and ideas (cf. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 1990: 390). Instead, visitors project their own ideas, concepts and fantasies onto objects, interpreting and consuming them according to their own preconceived agenda. These critiques raise several interesting ethical questions, which this paper has addressed in part by discussing Tibetan perspectives on religious material culture. As this discussion showed, however, it is not possible to define a singular “Tibetan perspective” since the degree to which objects are conceptualised as sacred depends on each individual’s personal level of Buddhist realisation. Attempting to quantify an object’s “sacredness” thus does not advance us any further towards identifying an ideal strategy for representation.
40In spite of this, since the original research for this paper was conducted, a number of displays have been developed which go some way towards addressing the critiques expressed. These displays not only include more secular material, but also emphasise alternative narratives of Tibetan culture. For example, the secular galleries created at the Newark Museum by curator Katherine Paul, which opened in 2011, display several items from the Newark Tibetan jewellery collection in connection with a narrative focussing on Central Asian trade. Curator John Clarke’s 2012 renovation of Room 47a at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which included the installation of a case on the secular arts featuring Tibetan jewellery, is also notable. The Rubin Museum of Art continues to host a variety of temporary exhibitions, some of which examine more diverse aspects of Tibetan and Himalayan culture and history. For example their exhibition, “Bodies in Balance: The Art of Tibetan Medicine” (March-September 2014) curated by Theresia Hofer, explored the history and practice of Tibetan medicine through a variety of objects, including medical tangka, texts, tools, and compounds. Likewise, a forthcoming exhibition at the World Museum, Liverpool, “Tibetan Realities: Life and Art in the 21st Century”, will diverge from common representations of Tibetanness by including contemporary objects, for example, contemporary Tibetan art (National Museums Liverpool, 2013; E. Martin pers. comm.).
- 38 NB. Not all Tibetans are satisfied with museum representations of their culture in the West. Tibeta (...)
41This brings me to a final cautionary point. Whilst Tibetans I spoke with in India seemed largely satisfied with Western museums’ representation of their culture, it should be remembered that this may be more an outcome of power inequality than attitude.38 Tibetans living inside the People’s Republic of China have little opportunity to voice their opinions about such forms of representation. Likewise, do Tibetans living in exile really have a choice but to accept our representations of them, given that Western support is essential to their cause (cf. Magnusson, 2002; Lopez, 1998)? In her comments, Guha-Thakurta (2007) touches on the issue of self-exoticisation, or collusion in Others’ exoticising projects. Tibetans living in exile have good reason to collude with Westerners’ exoticisms, if that collusion could garner support for their cause. In this sense Tibetanness and representations of it, both by Tibetans and by Others for Others, are always, and necessarily, political (cf. Magnusson, 2002; Anand, 2007; Lopez, 1998; Kaplan, 1994). Exiles’ opinions and statements regarding museum representation should therefore be read with this in mind. Whilst the Dalai Lama has officially endorsed the salvage function of Western museums (Harris, 2012: 162), the reality, of course, is that much of Tibet’s material culture heritage was destroyed inside Tibet during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). Museum collections in the West consequently have an important role to play in preserving what remains, since, as yet, there exists no Tibetan “patria” to which these objects can safely be returned (Singh, 2010). The Dalai Lama has nonetheless intimated that should Tibet regain her autonomy, repatriation of his country’s artefacts may be on his government’s agenda (Singh, 2010: 145; Harris, 2012: 163). The Tibetan case is salutary: it reminds us of the salience of representation, especially for living peoples, and that the decisions we make and representations we construct have ramifications beyond museum walls and even national borders. Representing Tibetan culture predominantly through the lens of Buddhism, or failing to challenge prevailing Western stereotypes of Tibetanness have real-life consequences for contemporary Tibetans living both inside Tibet and in the wider diaspora.