Among the remarkable results of Mr Robert H. N. Ho’s philanthropic initiatives to create a global Buddhist network and wider understanding of Buddhist art and traditions are The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Galleries of Buddhist Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Here, both goals have simultaneously been realised in a quietly spectacular way through a permanent display space devoted to Buddhist art. Supported by a grant from the Foundation and opened in 2009, it was the first area with such a focus in the UK museum world, creating an engaging pathway into this sometimes esoteric realm and for the east to speak to the west on one of its most influential worldviews.
The four spaces opened at the same time as The Many Faces of Buddhism, a Foundation-supported Buddhist arts festival in London. They were greeted with acclaim in the media, art world and Buddhist communities.
From Buddhist sculpture to art
From 2009-13, sculpture was the sole art form presented, with around 50 world-class pieces ranging from AD200 to the mid-19th century on show. The works, drawn almost entirely from the V&A’s extensive collection, represented different Buddhist practices from South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Far East. They included a 7th century Tang dynasty marble torso of the Buddha and the head of a huge Buddha originally carved into the rock of a 6th-century Xiangtangshan cave temple complex. There was also now a place to show a meditating Buddha, crafted in North West India around AD300 and a 17th-century gilded Nepalese figure of bodhisattva Tara. Neither had been seen before.
The flood of natural light falling on these areas was a beautifully atmospheric accompaniment to pieces devoted to enlightenment. However, the deterioration that such light could cause to paintings and manuscripts prevented their inclusion. When major museum renovations brought the temporary closure of three of the rooms and a complete move out of the fourth in 2013, fresh opportunities presented themselves. As part of a second curatorial vision and the August 2015 opening of a new space with different lighting, two 19th-century banner paintings from Thailand were included among the exhibits, one going on show for the first time.
The transformation also saw the renaming of all the display areas from The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Buddhist Sculpture Gallery to The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Galleries of Buddhist Art. The other galleries will reopen in summer 2017.
Religion in a secular museum
The question of religion within a secular museum with a mission to inspire artists and designers was an important one to address from the planning of the original displays onwards. The inaugural curatorial direction was to highlight Buddhist history and art in different areas of Asia. Lead Curator Dr John Clarke, who later took on both the first project and the new galleries, also felt that to really understand the works it was important to include their religious context and different forms of Buddhism. At the same time, given the museum’s public role and creative focus, he strove for religious neutrality. Respect for the sacred nature of the objects was shown through raising the pieces to waist level or above. Objectivity was stressed in interpretative panels and labels.*
In an interview with the Financial Times newspaper in 2009, when the works went on show, Mr Ho made the Foundation’s view clear: “We are not out there to be missionaries. We just want to show the art,” he said.
New lens that builds insight
The inclusion of the Buddhist-centred displays has fostered both the museum and the Foundation’s aims by highlighting a series of superb aesthetic pieces and drawing a greater diversity of audiences into the V&A, including more people from Asia and the Buddhist community. Exhibits are shown without cases wherever possible to bring them closer to the viewer. Additional activities help to enhance understanding. Publications and online access gave the works even wider resonance. “The ideas of the Buddhist faith are not terribly accessible to the general public. This is where museums occupy a special space,” Ms Beth McKillop, V&A's former Deputy Director and Director of Collections, said. “When people come into a museum, they expect to see something they don’t know much about. They are in a frame of mind that is open to learning something new.”
In the western museum world, the V&A’s new lens has enabled Buddhist works to be viewed in a more cross-cultural, comparative and holistic way than had tended to happen in the past. The approach has been critically noted by peers, art history media and Buddhist studies colleagues, Ms McKillop said.
Driving forward conservation
For V&A conservators, the Buddhist displays have brought a thought-provoking opportunity to research and study works from outside the western tradition in order to engage in conservation sympathetic to the context for which the piece was originally created. “When working on something that comes from the Far East, we have to change the way we think because we are facing new materials and techniques, which makes it interesting and challenging,” Mr Victor Borges, Senior Sculpture Conservator, said.
The Foundation’s support for both the V&A Buddhist Galleries and The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Centre for Buddhist Art and Conservation at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art has also created a complementary circle of conservators, academics and museum professionals with expertise in Buddhist art. V&A conservators mainly treat works for a museum environment. Courtauld conservators tackle art in situ, for example, temple and cave art in different Asian countries. Both are now benefiting from exchanges on analysis, techniques and experiences.
Renewed clarity and creativity
In Dr Clarke’s curatorial rethink for 2017, the position of the rooms has encouraged a more individualized approach, with themes related to icons. The already opened Room 47f, for example, is devoted to the historical Buddha image. A large mid-19th century Burmese shrine, a 15th-16th century standing figure of the Buddha from north central Thailand and a Qing dynasty seated Buddha are among over 20 works on show. Also included is a Burmese 18th-19th century standing figure of the Buddha that underwent state-of-the-art treatment by the museum’s conservators to recover its magnificence, along with the Thai banner paintings. The other rooms will focus on the story of Buddha’s life, bodhisattvas, and Tantric images respectively.
The different emphasis in the new displays is a reflection of Dr Clarke’s evolving view that the religious aspect of Buddhist works holds the key to fathoming the art. This was further inspired by a 2013 cross-disciplinary weekend workshop convened by the Foundation in the United States, which enabled museum professionals and Buddhist practitioners to talk over issues related to presentations of Buddhist art in current contexts.*
Ms McKillop noted: “It is not enough to speak to specialist audiences… What I hope we have done is pave the way to a bigger audience in western society for Buddhist art and Buddhist philosophy.”
The Ho family and the V&A are continuing to explore innovative ways to deepen the public’s understanding of Buddhist philosophy through art.
* Dr John Clarke’s essay, “Planning the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Gallery of Buddhist Sculpture 2009-2014”, appears in Sacred Objects in Secular Spaces, Exhibiting Asian Religions in Museums, edited by Bruce M. Sullivan (New York and London, Bloomsbury 2015).