As I’ve previously mentioned here and through my Twitter account, this past weekend the Philadelphia Museum of Art presented the Third Annual Anne d’Harnoncourt Symposium: Exhibiting India’s Art in the 21st Century (Sept. 30 – Oct. 2, 2011), a three-day event focusing on, as the title suggests, South Asian and Himalayan collections and the work that goes into presenting their contents to a museum audience. While I was only fortunate enough to be present for Saturday’s lecture series, the event began on Friday with an introduction by Director Timothy Rub and the University of Pennsylvania’s W. Norman Brown Professor of South Asia Studies, Michael W. Meister, and a tour of the collections with the Museum’s Stella Kramrisch Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art, Darielle Mason. This evening conveniently coincided with the Museum’s weekly Art After Five event, which I am told was South Asian-themed for the occasion. The Symposium continued with a five-lecture series and a dinner for weekend ticket holders on Saturday, and roundtable working sessions and a closing public talk by Yael Rice, the Museum’s Assistant Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art, on Sunday. Not only an informative intellectual endeavor, Dr. Meister and Dr. Mason hoped to use this opportunity to generate and debate new ideas to put into practice during the impending reinterpretation and reinstallation of the Museum’s acclaimed permanent South Asian galleries, which I’m sure will be an exciting and daunting endeavor for all involved.
Returning to this past Saturday, this was far from my first visit to the PMA or its famous South Asian Pillared Temple Hall. I lived in Philly for four years while studying for my undergraduate degree from Temple University and in that time I often visited museums throughout the city – especially on the annual Museum Day, when a poor college student could get in for free. Despite the years that have passed since that time, I instantly found myself feeling at home upon entering the Museum. I’d forgotten how many hours I’d spent there, particularly in the Asian and Medieval European galleries, gazing at the myriad of icons and artifacts of Buddhism, Tantra, and early Christianity (the three areas upon which my early studies in religion had focused on). Climbing the stairs of the Great Hall, I was awash in thoughts of this formative period of my life, and reminded of how this historic building just seems to feel so different from other places, even other museums of similar size and stature, as if infused with the stories of all the items it contains. Seeing the works I’d always loved so much and walking through the fully immersive “rooms” in which it feels as if you’ve stepped into another place and time reinvigorated me, and I was excited to have had the opportunity and incentive to return to a place I’d forgotten had meant so much to me.
Such nostalgia aside, I would find further inspiration from the numerous speakers that afternoon. The morning began with a lecture entitled Expanding the Canon: Garden and Cosmos, where, among other things, I learned about the critically acclaimed exhibition by Debra Diamond, Associate Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the Freer Gallery and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. (Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur, Oct. 4, 2008 – Jan. 4, 2009 at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, on tour throughout the world afterwards) and was enticed by her upcoming exhibit, Yoga: The Art of Transformation, to open in 2013 (http://www.asia.si.edu/research/curatorial/currentResearch.asp). Not knowing much about modern Asian art personally, the following speaker, Sonya Rhie Quintanilla, San Diego Museum of Art’s Curator of Asian Art, introduced me to the amazing work of the Indian artist Nandalal Bose (1882-1966) in her lecture, Framing Modernity in South Asia, and spoke about the interpretation and use of contemporary South Asian art in the museum setting. Quintanilla helped to organize an exhibit of this artist’s work at the PMA in 2008 (Rhythms of India, June 27, 2008 – Sept. 1, 2008). This would segue nicely to later discussions on whether modern Asian art belonged with other Asian works, or beside the works of its contemporary artists from around the world.
The talk I found to be the most personally motivating of the morning, however, came from the somewhat self-deprecating and quite personable Associate Curator of South Asian and Islamic Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, John Henry Rice. Using examples from his own career both as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania and as a curator at the VMFA, his lecture, In the Field and in the Gallery: Clarifying Context through Scholarship and Display, focused on the careful balance a museum professional must strive to maintain between performing his own research in the field and finding ways to display that research and the research of others in an approachable way to a diverse public audience. This has been a very pertinent issue for Dr. Rice, who has tried to take this into account in his recent challenging opportunity to re-design and re-install the South Asian galleries at the VMFA into its new monumental building – an endeavor that from all accounts appears to have been a great success (http://www.vmfa.state.va.us/Collections/SouthAsian/).
Following a brief break for lunch and my own whirl-wind tour of the Asian art galleries, most notably including the beautiful Himalayan pieces from The Natacha Rambova Collection of Lamaist Art and the large selection of South Asian stone images, the lectures continued with talks by Katherine Anne Paul, Curator of the Arts of Asia at the Newark Museum, and John E. Cort, Professor of Religion at Denison University and Faculty Consultant for the Denison Museum. Dr. Paul’s presentation, Prisms of Practice: Tibetan Buddhist Altars in Museum Settings, spoke directly to my specific interests and was the original catalyst driving my desire to visit the Symposium in the first place. I was not to be disappointed. Dr. Paul not only gave an account of the history of the consecrated Tibetan Altar at her current institution and the impact it has had on its audience, but compared the purpose of that permanent display to the temporary exhibition of a lay Tibetan altar that she helped to organize as the former Associate Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art several years prior (Conserving a Tibetan Altar, Dec. 9, 2006 – May 27, 2007). Her talk raised questions regarding the display of sacred items, the use of religious ritual as an educational tool, and the impact said use has on museum visitors, both for those from within the culture on display and for those who might be considered “outsiders.” Ultimately, Dr. Paul argues, installations, or rather those that create them, should strive to present the various perspectives and practices related to these sacred items to the best that their ability and respective institutional missions allow. As something of a reverse, Dr. Cort, the only member of the panel who is not currently a museum professional, acted somewhat as a devil’s advocate, questioning just how far an institution should go in attempting to display the “original context” of a particular religious image lest it become something of a farce (or, in the case of bathing rituals and so forth, at least broach territory few conservators would allow their items to endure). This, again, featured as a prominent topic in the discussion panel to follow.
At least for me, the Symposium was more than just a success, but rather something of a catalyst assuring me of what steps I’d most like to take in the coming months in regards to further education and a future career as a museum professional. I more than appreciate the work put into this past weekend by all those involved, and I look forward to future events of similar ilk, where hopefully I can devote more of my resources and time. As to the collections themselves, if you have not visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art I urge you to do so, and if you have, I hope you can visit again soon to be reminded of just what a special place it is. For further information on the history and contents of the Museum’s spectacular Indian and Himalayan Art Collection, see the official website: http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/216-423-189.html