Thinking About Culture with a Capital “C” in the Galleries

Last week, I carved out just enough time in my otherwise busy, administrative life to lead a tour for a group of college students from Parsons School for Design, which is just around the corner from the Rubin Museum of Art. These students are enrolled in a course entitled “Exhibiting Cultures,” and I had the distinct pleasure of leading a tour for the same course last fall, when I was still quite new at the Rubin (I moved to New York in August, 2009).

Parsons Facade Courtesy of Amphibios Life Blog

It was invigorating to spend some quality time with our exhibitions in planning for the “Exhibiting Cultures” class tour. I have developed quite a profound love for the artwork in our galleries over the last year, and I rarely get to spend a lot of time with the artwork anymore!

My Identity 3 by Conkar Gyatso featured in Tradition Transformed

During the tour, I utilized connections between our traditional artworks, from Buddhist and Hindu religious traditions, and the contemporary artworks found in the recently closed exhibition Tradition Transformed: Tibetan Artists Respond. I was acutely aware that these students are thinking and talking about the myriad ways that institutions address Culture (with a capital C). For any museum or similar institution, the concept of Culture is slippery. For us at the Rubin, even more so; art, religion, geography, politics, and societal rituals and traditions are inherently found in the lives of these objects. This greatly complicates the concept of Culture. When I devise a one-hour tour, it is incredibly important to me to acknowledge this complexity, while also providing keys to unlock the artwork and space for people to make some kind of real meaning for themselves.

Clear Light Tara by Losang Gyatso featured in Tradition Transformed

Because these students from Parsons were openly discussing the whole idea of exhibiting culture, our dialogue during the tour was even more transparent.  What a gift! We talked about the cultural branding of religion in the West. We looked closely at the ways traditional art making techniques and materials change over time. We took risks in our conversation and came away with more questions than answers. When our hour together came to a close, I thanked the group; not only for engaging intently in our conversation and asking lots of great questions, but also for offering me new keys to unlock the artwork and space to make new meaning for myself.

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