Sacred Objects in Secular Spaces

Exhibiting Asian Religions in Museums

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Bruce M. Sullivan
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , October
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This edited volume contains eleven essays that address a variety of issues associated with the conceptualization and display of religious artworks from Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist traditions. Collectively, the essays explore the different ways that museums grapple with objects that once served ritual/devotional functions. Do museums highlight the former sacrality of such images or should they give primacy to the artworks' aesthetic properties, given their new context? Each author approaches such questions through their own disciplinary lens as curators, guest curators, art historians, and/or specialists in Asian religions.

The book is divided into three parts. Part 1 focuses on the display of Hindu and Sikh objects and contains essays by Richard H. Davis, Deepak Sarma, Bruce M. Sullivan, and Anne Murphy. Part 2 addresses the exhibition of Buddhist imagery with contributions by John Clarke, Jeff Durham, Denise Patry Leidy, and Ivette M. Vargas-O'Bryan. The essays in Part 3, written by Janet Baker, Charles D. Orzech, and Michael Willis, problematize the interpretation and display of Asian objects within larger exhibitions/collections of world art. While this organization works well for the volume, it is important to note that many of the essays speak to each other across these divisions. For example, building from the lead question from Davis's essay "What Do Indian Images Really Want?" authors Murphy, Clarke, Baker, and Orzech individually explore what museum audiences really want. Interestingly, the essays by Murphy and Clarke reveal a shared concern among Sikh and Buddhist museum goers that exhibitions relate objects to historical narratives and/or biographies of important personages in the traditions. In contrast, the audience for the exhibition Sacred Word and Image: Five World Religions praised Baker's organization of the show because it relied less on the historical and socio-political contexts of the objects and more on overlapping religious themes such as "Sacred Spaces and Places," "Symbols of Power," and "Divine Beauty," among others. At the same time, such comparative displays can create a sense of unease in viewers and result in a flattening of our understanding of religious difference, as discussed in detail by Orzech.

Many of the essays (Sarma, Clarke, Durham, Vargas-O'Bryan, and Baker) present the conceptualization processes that informed and shaped the selection and display of objects. In Sarma's essay on an exhibition of Kalighat painting, he outlines his concerns about the marketing and use of a particular painting of Kali to attract visitors to the show. Even though he served as guest curator, Sarma questions whether or not the focus on the Kali painting inadvertently reinforced Western stereotypes of Hinduism as an "exotic" religious practice that features devotion to a "tongue-lolling," fearsome goddess (33). Other authors discuss the efficacy (and/or impracticalities) of reconstructing specific devotional contexts in gallery installations—contexts that might include the sights, sounds, and smells of active worship spaces. One installation technique mentioned by a number of authors is the use of subdued lighting within the gallery to recreate a temple or shrine setting. Objects are then illuminated through dramatic spotlights or targeted pools of light so that their aesthetic properties can be discerned. In some ways, then, this technique helps to present the artworks as both cultic object and masterpiece. For Durham, who curated the show Enter the Mandala, the use of such lighting not only accentuated the details of the painted mandalas, but echoed a literary strategy (called "twilight language") used by Vajrayana Buddhists in their philosophical writings. Thus, the employment of "twilight" lighting in the gallery gave physical form to certain Vajrayana concepts expressed in both art and texts (83-4).

Reading through these essays, one also becomes aware of a fluid definition of the museum as a strictly secular space. As Murphy points out, many collections of Sikh objects are housed within gurdwaras or are associated with them in various ways. Sullivan's essay on the growing practice of yoga within the gallery space equally questions the role of the museum as a secular institution. He notes that some yoga practitioners feel that they are "reconsecrating" the images by performing yoga in the same spaces as the artworks (47). An important follow-up question (not asked by Sullivan) would be whether or not the museum itself defines these activities as "religious" or whether the institution distances itself from such attributions by claiming that it is simply fostering community wellness programs. Further complicating traditional functions and understandings of the museum space are digital exhibitions as discussed by Vargas-O'Bryan in her collaborative project on Tibetan art. And finally, Willis views the museum as a transformative space, one that vacillates between being a "place of amnesia" and a "place of memory," depending on the records and knowledge surrounding the collected object (145-6).

Overall, this is a thought-provoking volume that gives primacy to the ever-evolving lives of objects and how we interpret them in shifting contexts. It raises more questions than it answers and there are no monolithic definitions of the sacred and secular offered here. Given the richness of the essays, I would have liked to see a more thorough discussion on how museums are handling the issue of provenance, given that we now have greater knowledge regarding the past lives of these images. Are museums identifying the specific temple, shrine, and/or monastery where these images once served devotional functions? And if so, how do they counteract the resulting vision of a sacred site depleted of its imagery? While the essays by Davis, Murphy, Leidy, and Willis address issues regarding object acquisition, the topic of provenance could have been touched upon in greater detail by other authors to strengthen the cohesion of the volume. This minor point aside, I highly recommend this book to scholars interested in Asian art and religion. In particular, museum professionals, art educators, and students engaged in the field of museum studies will find this book extremely compelling.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lisa Owen is Program Coordinator for the College of Visual Arts & Design and Associate Professor of Art History at University of North Texas.

Date of Review: 
May 4, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bruce M. Sullivan, Professor of Religious Studies at Northern Arizona University.



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