Pilgrims, Healers, and Wizards: Buddhism and Religious Practices in Burma and Thailand (British Museum)

Figure of a Shan tattooed man of strength. Mong Nai, Shan state, Burma/Myanmar, Late 1800s to early 1900s. Stucco (As1930, 1018.1). © Trustees of the British Museum

Figure of a Shan tattooed man of strength. Mong Nai, Shan state, Burma/Myanmar, Late 1800s to early 1900s. Stucco (As1930, 1018.1). © Trustees of the British Museum

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.

Reverse glass painting of the nat spirit U Min Kyaw Zwa about 1990. Burma/Myanmar. Pigment and foils on glass (1996, 0507, 0.6). Donated by Ralph and Ruth Isaacs. © Trustees of the British Museum.

Reverse glass painting of the nat spirit U Min Kyaw Zwa about 1990. Burma/Myanmar. Pigment and foils on glass (1996, 0507, 0.6). Donated by Ralph and Ruth Isaacs. © Trustees of the British Museum.

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.

Germany – Memories of a Nation: a 600-year history in objects (British Museum)

Georg Baselitz Eagle, 1977. Paper Print © Georg Baselitz 2014

Georg Baselitz Eagle, 1977. Paper Print © Georg Baselitz 2014

Entering the dimly lit exhibition space for “Germany – Memories of a Nation” feels exciting, as does being greeted by a video installation of the fall of the Berlin Wall, people on the street celebrating, driving in old trabants and waving blissfully at the camera. Germany is united again! Yet, celebrations are accompanied by a somewhat gloomy quote from Georg Baselitz, whose Eagle unpretentiously finds its space in the corner: “What I could never escape was Germany, and being German.” What is one to expect?

Albrecht Dürer Melancholia, 1514. Engraving © British Museum

Albrecht Dürer Melancholia, 1514. Engraving © British Museum

 

The somewhat confusing messages at the entrance are soon replaced by a celebratory mood with the following displays. Muted green and blue walls accentuating the old nation’s wealth with paintings by Hans Holbein the Younger and softly lit vitrines inhabited by ancient maps, precious coins, beakers and tankards all allude to the great history of the Holy Roman Empire and the many cities it contained. They used to be German – but are no longer. It is only through the objects themselves that the complexity of “German” identity is implied, one that does not necessarily correspond with either historical or contemporary national boundaries.

The objects on display are often rather splendid choices, and really do show the best of German culture: a Gutenberg Bible, Dürer’s magnificent prints, Bauhaus designs and post-war works by Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter. It is obvious from the display and its presentation that this is a celebration of a culture looking to reinvent itself, perfectly executed after Erich Hobsbawm’s “Invention of Tradition.” Encapsulated in this aim seems to be a need to emphasise that Germany is more than what happened between 1938 and 1945, or even between 1914 and 1989. The miniscule part of the exhibition that deals with the First and Second World War and the country’s East-West division seems unnecessarily cut short, although the replica of the entrance gate to Buchenau is well placed in a harshly lit corner, evoking the bleak horrors of the concentration camps.

Exhibition Poster “Germany – memories of a nation” at Entrance of British Museum © Julia Secklehner

Exhibition Poster “Germany – memories of a nation” at Entrance of British Museum © Julia Secklehner

In light of the fact that more recent history tends to be at the forefront of people’s minds, the exhibition tackles the last 70 years of Germany’s history like it was just a little glimpse in its greatness. And while this may have been done purposefully so to show “what else there is,” it seems ignorant at the worst, or as a diminishment of what happened at the best. In reference to the exhibition title, we are shown quite clearly what “Germany” wants to remember and, more strikingly, what it doesn’t. In a sense, this marks the exhibition as authentic- why remember all the horror if there is also a more glorious history to commemorate? But it also raises questions of historical responsibility, which remain unanswered here.

An exhibition spanning over 600 years inevitably requires abbreviation. But where to abbreviate in this context is crucial, and I am unsure whether the resulting overview of objects does “the German powerhouse” justice.

Julia Secklehner is a PhD student at the Courtauld Institute working on national identities in caricature in interwar Central Europe.

“Germany – Memories of a Nation” is at the British Museum until 25 January 2015.

A conference diptych: Gothic Ivories: Content and Context

The Louvre Descent from the Cross

The Louvre Descent from the Cross in 2013

Part of the Gothic Ivories Project, a free-to-use database that aims to catalogue every surviving European ivory carving of c.1200-1530, is to hold a bi-annual get-together, this year jointly held by the Courtauld and the British Museum. For a conference that swallowed up a medievalist’s weekend right before the annual International Medieval Conference at Leeds, apparently quite a number were made of stronger stuff than mere animal teeth to sit out the series of papers by early career academics and museum curators. The database is a very useful tool for the armchair connoisseur enabling one to compare ivories from all over the world on a laptop screen. But V&A curator Paul Williamson’s keynote on Saturday morning reminded the essential challenge for scholars. To understand these objects, we have retain a keen understanding of the wider historical context and the visual culture of the time, and of course cross-overs into other media by carvers working predominantly in ivory.

So we had an initial session of close-looking. Louvre curators Danielle Gaborit-Chopin and Elisabeth Antonine-Konig and conservator Juliette Levy-Hinstin investigated the object history of works in their collection such as the extraordinary Descent from the Cross and the dispersal of its figures and the separation of their heads in the tumult of the Revolution. From a completely different angle, Christian Nikolaus Opitz and Katherine Eve Baker both gave papers with less pretty pictures and more focus on documents, but vividly illustrating the creation, trade, function and storage of these objects in medieval life.

16th-centy Memento Mori from the Schnutgen Museum, Cologne, looms over Igmar Reesing, Jack Hartnell and Stephen Perkinson's panel questions

16th-century Memento Mori from the Schnutgen Museum, Cologne, looms over Igmar Reesing, Jack Hartnell and Stephen Perkinson’s panel questions

Post-lunch we were treated to Jack Hartnell’s object analysis of an ivory surgical knife, a tantalising suggestion of intertwined form and function, and a pair of enticingly macabre memento mori ivories by Stephen Perkinson, with a complex appeal for their original owners of humanistic allegory, anatomical detail and dark humour. The way that the nineteenth century received ivories was considered in the final session of the day, and the presentation of some nineteenth-century sketchbooks in papers by Franz Kirchweger and Benedetta Chiesi excited much of the audience interested in tracing the wanderings of these objects.

Chuck Little, Emily Guerry, Sarah Guerin and Marta Karyzhanovskaia at the BM

Chuck Little, Emily Guerry, Sarah Guérin and Marta Karyzhanovskaia at the BM

On Sunday the looking beyond ivories continued, with papers by Glyn Davies, Monique Blanc and Michele Tomasi on the Embriachi, a loosely-defined workshop who work primarily in bone rather than ivory, who show how difficult it is to categorise the medieval craftsman. The relationship of ivories to monumental works was looked at throughout the day by scholars working primarily on other material, Emily Guerry on the Saint Chapelle as a source of ivory iconography and Carla Varela Fernandes on the narrative panels on a stone tomb in Alcobaça perhaps looking to ivories.

The Gothic Ivories Project is only one tool in the arsenal of anyone wishing to study this genre. These two days showed the importance of viewing the object in person whenever possible, their documented history from the beginnings as pure ivory right through to the present, and their place in devotional and material culture to truly bring these precious objects to the level of regard held by easel painting and monumental sculpture.

See here for the full programme of these two days and some of the excellent papers there has not been space to mention