Celebrating a Century – Part One

As I mentioned in my first entry, this last Wednesday (July 20, 2011) I was finally able to make a trip over to the Newark Museum to see the Tibetan Collection Centennial Exhibitions that have been on display since March. Due to the number of exhibitions I visited and for ease of  reading, I will break this visit into two posts rather than one long one, starting  with the featured exhibits on the Main Floor in the first part, and ascending to the ongoing Tibetan exhibits on the third floor of the North Wing in the second.

As some background, in celebration of the Centennial marking one hundred years since the Newark Museum’s Tibetan Collection began in 1911, a number of events have taken place beginning with a Losar (Lo gsar), or Tibetan New Year celebration, and the opening of a temporary exhibit – Tsongkhapa: The Life of a Tibetan Visionary – on Saturday, March 5, 2011. This has been followed by a number of Tibetan-themed events, including a Tibetan Bazaar, the painting of a sand mandala, a lecture series, and even a visit from His Holiness, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso (1935 – Present), who served as the keynote speaker at the Newark Peace Education Summit  (May 13-15, 2011). While in Newark, His Holiness also re-consecrated the permanently installed Tibetan Buddhist Altar situated on the third floor of the North Wing of the Museum. Quite disappointingly, I was not able to attend any of these events personally, but instead could only follow them vicariously as they coincided precisely with the period of time in which I was preparing to and actually moving from my apartment in Florida back to my home in New Jersey. As such, while programs and classes continue for the rest of the year, I missed the primary celebrations. Nevertheless, I knew had to visit the Museum as soon as I was able, as the Centennial as a whole prompted a number of new exhibits as well as some reorganization of the permanent Tibetan exhibitions. I’d been the Museum during the early spring of 2010, and I was excited to see how the Museum staff could have improved on what I already found to be an astonishing presentation. Having perused the website, I knew I had at least eight exhibits to see specifically related to the Centennial. So, with a friend in tow who knew her way around museums but not much about the Himalayas in particular (and who was nice enough to put up with my one-tracked mind, occasionally faulty memory, and consistent spouting of facts and opinions), I was finally able to visit for myself.

Featured Exhibits

 I. Tsongkhapa: The Life of a Tibetan Visionary

This featured exhibit of the collection is installed on the first floor of the Main Building in a side room to your right if you are standing with your back to the Garden Entrance. It consists of a set of fifteen narrative thangkas (thang ka) displaying the complete hagiography of Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), the founder of the Geluk sect of Tibetan Buddhism (this is also the sect to which His Holiness, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, belongs). The walls are painted a beautiful shade of maroon that directly compliments the royal blue embroidered silk framing the images hung upon them, and causes the room to sit in stark contrast to the white-washed walls of the rest of the Engelhard Court area. A thangka, for those unacquainted, is a particular kind of Tibetan icon consisting of a painting or an embroidery mounted on a colorful, often multi-layered rectangle of various textiles (usually embroidered silk). It hangs from wooden road, and is draped with silk covers and banners. While thangkas are most commonly seen as depicting a particular deity or saint as the central figure, they can also be used to show other things, such as visual representations of teachings (like thangkas of the Wheel of Life), groups of figures, and other religious ideas. This set was part of the 1911 founding collection around which the celebrations are revolving, and their conservation by the museums took place over a nine-month period (The Newark Museum describes this conservation in detail on their website: http://www.newarkmuseum.org/conservationoverview.html).

What was probably my favorite part of this exhibit was the way in which it was complimented with informational materials.  Tucked unobtrusively in two places along the walls between the images were plexiglass bins holding laminated placards for each of the individually numbered thangkas.  On one side, a copy of the image is broken down into its individual parts and scenes, while on the other, each scene is described in a cohesive narrative form. There was even one bound book of the placards that you could take from image to image, that, if starting from one and working to fifteen, allows you to read an entire hagiography of revered teacher. It really made looking at each image far more engaging, and we spent quite a lot of time going from one to the other looking up individual scenes or characters that jumped out to us as interesting or unique.

II. Tibetan Photography Collection

Displayed on the walls outside of the room containing the Tsongkhapa exhibit is a small but fascinating collection of photos said to have been taken between 1905 and 1949. Not listed on the website or in the Museum brochures, it was something of a nice surprise. The black and white images consist mostly of portraits of Tibetan people (described as Nobles & Nomads in scrolling text on the wall) in various styles of traditional garb and adornments, but also show several scenes of everyday life prior to Tibet’s  incorporation into the People’s Republic of China. Not much accompanies the photos in terms of identifiers (perhaps due to their age and a lack of recordation on the photographers’ parts), but they are beautiful nonetheless.

III. Pots of Silver and Gold 

Along the corridor that connects the Main Building of the Museum to the North Wing (the half of the complex which conveniently houses the Asian Art exhibits) is another newly installed display of Tibetan and Mongolian artifacts from what appears to be the eighteenth through twentieth centuries. Tucked behind the glass are a gorgeous collection of tea pots, pitchers, cups and similar items made from various materials and decorated with intricate flourishes in silver and gold, such as motifs of lotuses, the eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism, and, most strikingly, dragon and makara-headed spouts and handles. This small collection spoke to both the tea lover in me and my own personal fascination with intricately crafted everyday items, not to mention my
interest in anything with a spirit-deity or animal-like creature involved.  I particularly liked that, along with a description of the items, the Museum provided some background into the traditional diet associated with these pieces, giving a brief description of home-made barley beer (chang), butter tea (bod ja), and tsampa (a type of dough ball eaten raw), among others. This was a nice touch regarding Tibetan and Mongolian food culture that those uninitiated might find interesting (For more information on this exhibit, see: http://www.newarkmuseum.org/potssilvergold.html).

Both of these Featured Exhibits on the Main Floor (and I imagine the photography exhibit as well) will continue to be on display through December 31, 2011, and if you are in the area I strongly suggest you go take a look for yourself before they end.

In my next entry, I will continue with a discussion of the ongoing Tibetan exhibits on the Third Floor, which consist of the permanent children’s exhibit and the Tibetan Buddhist Altar, the recently revamped Chapel of the Masters, Chapel of the Fierce Protectors, and From the Sacred Realm: Paradises and Pure Lands, as well as the newly installed ABC’s of Iconography: The Body, Speech and Mind of Buddhist Art, Tiaras to Toe Rings: Asian Ornaments, and Red Luster: Lacquer & Leatherworks of Asia.

Tashi delek!

—-

On a side note:

A team of scientists led by the Museum’s Provost of Science Mike Novacek and the Paleontology Division Chair Mark Norell have headed to Mongolia’s Gobi Desert to examine a particularly rich fossil bed that has produced hundreds of animal fossils from the Cretaceous period. You can follow their expedition as team member and Museum researcher Jonah Choiniere shares updates to be tweeted by @AMNH with the hashtag #GobiExpedition (http://www.amnh.org/news).

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About Kristen R.

Amateur home cook and preservationist with a love of event planning and a background in Tibetan Buddhist studies. View all posts by Kristen R.

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