U.S. curators scour Myanmar for Buddhist treasures to borrow
Curators from the U.S. recently toured Myanmar, selecting Buddhist artwork from its ancient national treasures for a 2015 exhibit in New York. In exchange for the loan, Myanmar will get training in conservation methods for its museum employees.
The New York Times
BAGAN, Myanmar — In a delicate operation here, specialists gingerly eased a priceless, 1,000-year-old national treasure — a Buddhist bronze casting in the shape of a lotus flower — from its perch in a museum showcase.
A small group of curators on a recent visit from the United States, flashlights in hand, admired the tiny metal hinges that allow the flower to open and close as well as the intricate detail on the miniature Buddhas that craftsmen attached to the petals long ago. The piece was found in pristine condition inside a stone box flung to the surface by an earthquake here nearly 40 years ago.
The curators pronounced it a star attraction among hundreds of rarely seen ancient objects in the neglected museums and dusty storerooms they have been scouring across Myanmar as they prepare for a 2015 exhibit at the Asia Society in New York City that will celebrate the nation’s long-hidden Buddhist art.
As Myanmar wrestles with the problems and uncertainty of a nascent democracy, and Buddhist extremists tarnish the image of the country’s dominant religion with attacks on Muslims, early Buddhist art offers a different dimension of a country that until recently languished under a military dictatorship, and before World War II served as a tropical outpost of the British Empire.
The curators rummaged through the humid basement of the Bagan museum, where they found outsize chamber pots used in the princely palaces that once flourished on the banks of the Irrawaddy River. They examined gilded wood monastery boxes that stored palm-leaf manuscripts. They peered into grimy glass cabinets at gold-painted sphinxlike creatures in a rundown library in the town of Prome, near where the first Buddhists in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, lived.
“The show will be a coming out for Burma,” said Melissa Chiu, museum director of the Asia Society. “The country has been closed off for so many years, we hope the show will assume a bigger significance, and shed new light on material not seen before. Buddhism is the state religion and plays such a major role in daily life.”
The curators searched in the former capital, Yangon; in the new capital, Naypyidaw; in Prome; and here in Bagan, which from the ninth century to the 13th century was the center of a royal kingdom where the creative energy was so intense that nearly 2,000 brick and gilded temples were built across a vast plain. In Bagan, a popular destination for tourists imagining the glory days among faded temples, farmers still unearth ancient gold jewelry.
The antiquities hunt has the support of President Thein Sein. During a visit to the United States last year, he approved the loan of dozens of artworks for the 2015 show, ensuring that the curators were welcomed in usually off-limits inner sanctums. Of the estimated 70 objects planned for the exhibit, about three-quarters will come from Myanmar and the remainder from collections in the United States, Chiu said.
In exchange for the right to borrow the art, the Asia Society has pledged to provide training in conservation techniques to Myanmar’s museum employees, who must make do with a scant $100,000 budget that leaves the nation’s museums with little electricity, poor air-conditioning and no money for acquisitions.
Although the visitors had extraordinary access and freedom to choose the objects they wanted, some items were too precious to ship to New York, including an elaborately carved gilded door from the royal court in Mandalay that was salvaged before the British army looted the palace in 1885.
The curators coveted it, but it was one of the few pieces the directors of the National Museum in Yangon vetoed. “Impossible,” said Daw Nu Mra Zan, a former deputy director of the museum.
But that still left many images of Buddha — in stone, bronze and wood — to choose from.
A wood carving more than 2 feet high from the 12th century that shows Buddha descending from heaven after giving a sermon to his mother will surely be on the A-list. “This is very special,” Sylvia Fraser-Lu, a guest curator for the show, said as she admired the movement carved into the piece. “It’s luck that it was preserved. It may have been inside a temple, or on the shady side of a temple.”
For a spectacular object that would impress hard-to-please New York audiences, the curators liked an 11th-century stone sculpture of a jaunty-looking Prince Siddhartha shearing his hair with a sword as he vowed to begin the journey that would lead him to become the Buddha. “It could be the signature piece of the show,” said Chiu, thinking ahead to marketing possibilities.