It is easy to forget that curatorial control is not absolute. During the preparations for any show project curators must contend with numerous obstacles. These might include time constraints, lack of high quality objects or works of lasting significance, as well as gaps in the collection, from material illustrations to knowledge about the provenance or exact utility of enigmatic objects. Moreover, many of these obstacles arise well before considerations of public duty, both to those who view the displays, and to those who may be represented in them. Arguably such difficulties become more pronounced when an exhibition strives to provide audiences with insights into the wealth of recent and contemporary histories of unfamiliar cultures.
Pilgrims, Healers, and Wizards appears plagued by many of these issues. Alexandra Green, the recently appointed Henry Ginsburg Curator for Southeast Asia, has clearly fought an uphill battle against the British Museum’s neglect for expansion and upkeep of its collections from the regions of Thailand and Burma. To be sure, the display contains some noteworthy objects. These include a large and intricately carved Buddha’s footprint, a late nineteenth-century Burmese cosmology manuscript, and an early 1900s stucco figure of a Shan strong man, whose confident demeanor is reinforced by the highly stylized tattoos that cover his body, revealing him as a man of spiritual and physical fortitude.
However, the low aesthetic value of many works in the show draws attention away from these higher quality pieces. Contemporary popular posters, though of religious significance for modern day Thai and Burmese Buddhists, mostly appear cartoonish and overly standardized. These features distract from the underlying sentiment portrayed, for instance, in a reverse glass painting showing the nat spirit U Min Kyaw Zwa. Infamously regarded today as an alcoholic cock-fighter, but also a horseman of considerable skill, he is almost nobly depicted while surrounded by his favorite amusements.
The true strength of Ms. Green’s curatorial skill reveals itself in her reimagining of the purposes of Buddhist exhibitions. Her focus on ‘how the principal religious systems in the region are revealed in lively daily practices’ can be transformative. Flanking the entrance to the exhibit, a display case features modern-day shrine offerings; whether a ‘money tree’, or dish soap, snacks and juice boxes, the items may elicit laughter, but also help us to focus on the sincerity of common religious practices. They serve as reminders that Buddhism is a living religion adaptable to the demands of present times.
Indeed, the show comes at a politically strained moment for politics in the region, just on the heels of a military coup in Thailand. These sorts of social disturbances risk the continuity and development of lived practices, while also affecting the way those cultures are represented abroad (witness the original title for the show, Power and Protection, a phrase found peppered around the exhibit, was deemed inappropriate by the British Museum in light of current events). That the two circumstances are intertwined makes for an exhibit that is more powerful than the sum of its arts.
Ethan A. Perets is a MA student at the Courtauld Institute where he studies the history and conservation of Buddhist art.
Pilgrims, Healers, and Wizards: Buddhism and Religious Practices in Burma and Thailand is at the British Museum until 11th January 2015.