RMA Teens: Gateway to Himalayan Art explains the iconography, materials, and contexts used in Himalayan artwork. Its like an introduction to the rest of the museum. Why did you feel such an exhibit was necessary?
Karl: Most people arent familiar with Himalayan art or where the Himalayan area is. We tried to present Himalayan art in a broader context. We needed to explain that Himalayan art comes from Bhutan, Tibet, Nepal, etc., as well as related cultures such as China, India, and Mongolia. We needed to give people an entry point, give them a few concepts, and underlying ideas that theyll see being used in the art on the next few floors because, of course, we cant start each show at zero. With a floor like this our other exhibits can be more specific or focus for instance on a particular art historical period or a particular art historical style.
Teens: What was on this floor before? Were there any problems with it? Why did the museum decide to update it and what improvements did you make?
Karl: We had another introductory exhibit here before. It had opened in 2004 and it was really nice but there were a couple of problems. One problem was that there was no long term schedule built into that exhibition. So one thing youll notice is that the structure of this gallery is kind of modular. We give you a line drawing of each figure next to text highlighting the specific features of that figure and then examples of that figure in two and three dimensions. Since the objects have to be rotated for conservation reasons, we wanted this exhibition to be sustainable. We implemented this concept where when one object comes down we have another object that can immediately take its place. It used to be that we might have a concept for which we only had one example or when we needed to replace objects, we didnt have another one that fit the concept as well as the one we had taken down. And the question came up, What do you do in the 2nd and 3rd and 4th year? So, that was a very important improvement.
Another thing is that the earlier exhibition tried to handle many different concepts, and over time they sometimes became muddled and confusing. So another thing we tried to do is to simplify and streamline this exhibition. In the past we had rather long texts, so we thought in this exhibit wed introduce the basic ideas without overwhelming the first-time visitor with too much text and too many concepts. We tried to arrange it so that the ideas build upon each other. We start with the figures, then see how the objects were made, and then address the basic issues of why were they made and what is their use. Ending with the Shrine Room, which is opening soon, we look at their context. So youre being introduced to some of the pieces and parts and then you see those pieces together in their original context. Hopefully that will tie everything together, that and the map.
Teens: Tell us about the map. Why is it here? And what is so special about it?
Karl: The exhibition is organized geographically and so our map shows us cultural areas without necessarily paying much attention to modern political borders. It highlights the cultures that are producing the Himalayan art we have in our collection. And then we have landscape pictures, pictures of architecture, people, and then an example of an artwork from that cultural area in our collection. So, in a general way, the map is introducing the geographic and cultural contexts of the art that one will encounter in our galleries. The map acts as a geographic layer. All these different things are being layered. So to do this effectively, we placed the map at the top of the stairs so that when climb up thats the first thing you see. Also, this map is placed on the top of the landing to link the second floor introduction with another long-term exhibition on the third floor which will explore the geographic, cultural, and historic relationships within the art of the Himalayas.
Miho: (laughing) Youve said a lot.
Karl: Yeah, theres a lot of thinking that goes behind it but in the end we tried to make it simple. We really didnt want people to be overwhelmed. What we like to do is have someone go through this whole floor in about 30 to 40 minutes and then move on. The idea is that you dont spend your whole time on this floor. This is an introduction to the basic ideas and then you can move on. We really wanted to make the material accessible. We want to provide a basic entry point so that people feel comfortable. Even if you dont understand all of it you should be able to reach a new comfort level with the art.
Teens: The map is very engaging. The entire exhibit is engaging. When we first got to this floor, Miho remarked that it reminded her of her childhood visits to science museums because the information here is very accessible, very engaging, in a way that a lot of art museums arent.
Karl: Well thats the struggle for us too, because this is a fine art museum and not a science museum. We struggled with how to balance the basic didactics – keeping it simple and engaging enough and yet at the same time keeping the focus on the art. Youll notice that in the formatting, we have these large panels and we have text accompanying the art. Especially as you move up the floors youll see that the text fades back and the art stands for itself. But here we wanted the basic concepts to be clear, so we made a bit of a compromise. We did want to incorporate the text with the art because a lot of school groups visit this exhibition and we really wanted something that would be easy to teach with. And so this alcove with the map serves as a basic introduction. The reason this gallery is so open here is that we wanted to allow school groups to move easily from the Buddha to the bodhisattvas and the humans associated with them, to have everything in their field of vision.
Teens: Sometimes big museums are a bit overwhelming. Does it help being a smaller, newer institution? Do you have more freedom to experiment with your audience and see what type of exhibit works best?
Karl: The Rubin is small but its also very young. It opened in 2004 to the public. I think at well-established institutions, theres a way of doing things. Theyre not restricted by geography or tradition. And theyre at an advantage because theyre internationally known. Were not as well known, so its a bit harder. And were in New York where thousands of other cultural events are taking place amongst which were trying to gain attention. New York is a real cultural hotbed. But the advantage of being a smaller institution is that can spend a bit more time on specialized topics. We want to create a specialized atmosphere. We want to take scholarship on art and historical research and present it to the public in an accessible way. That is one of our main goals.
Find out more about the Rubin’s RMA Teens program here: www.rmanyc.org/teens