‘Many Faces, Many Paths’ gives two distinct interpretations
Many Faces, Many Paths: Art of Asia has been a fixture at the Glenbow Museum for nearly 25 years. The oldest of the museum’s permanent exhibits, it houses more than 80 statues, sculptures and other Buddhist and Hindu relics dating as far back as the first century.
But despite the peaceful atmosphere of this gallery, museum staff and the collection’s most prominent donor have different views on the exhibit’s significance — whether it is religious or artistic.
The majority of the collection came from the Bumper Development Corporation Ltd., a private oil and gas company headquartered in Calgary. The company has donated nearly all the pieces in this gallery.
Robert M. Borden, Bumper’s founder, says large collections from a single donor are rarely displayed in museums, which is why the Glenbow asked him for an introductory statement for the exhibit.
It reads: “The gallery you are entering contains an exhibit of objects that are works of art, not just cultural artifacts. For those of you who wish to view it as an ethnological exhibit or as a religious experience, information is provided alongside each object and you may seek to extend your knowledge through further study. However, in the eyes of this collector, the exhibit is first and foremost, one of art.”
But just a few steps further in the gallery is a very different message, this time penned by the museum’s staff:
“Sacred images are containers of the divine,” reads a sign beside one of the largest statues in the gallery. “Though they are beautiful and decorative works of art, the most important function of the Hindu and Buddhist objects in this gallery is to create a sacred atmosphere around the worshipper.”
The gallery has certainly had many visitors interpret the display religiously. Beth Carter, the gallery’s former curator, said an offering bowl had to be installed in front of one of the larger Buddha statues because people making offerings were throwing coins into the statue’s lap, damaging the delicate piece.
Art versus religion
So why does Borden’s sign seem to place such an emphasis on the artistic value of the collection?
Borden explained his views in an email: “Perhaps it would be fair to say that great art transcends religious beliefs and always captures something universal in the human experience and it is not necessary to be a believer or to be versed in a religious tradition to understand and be moved by the object.”
Borden, an atheist, made it clear that he welcomes visitors to interpret his collection in whatever way they choose, including religiously, and that he understands and appreciates the diverse meanings the exhibit has.
“Every eye and every mind will experience art in a different way,” Borden said. “My statement is just one man’s perspective.”
Borden may have been invited to share that perspective by museum staff, but Carter said museum employees have a different view.
“From Mr. Borden’s viewpoint, he has always considered it an art collection,” Carter said. “But from the staff and curatorial perspective, sacred art from Asia is intended for a different purpose, and it’s very hard to view it only as art.”
“Many Faces, Many Paths was really meant to evoke this idea that we’re talking about many different groups within Asia, and many different religious traditions,” Carter continued. “This style of art that is in the collection is very much monumental, spiritual art, sacred art.”
Borden and Carter’s views are part of a debate that art historian Deepali Dewan said has gone on in Western art museums since the 20th century.
“Some people have tried to promote it as ‘Art’ with a capital ‘A’ because they don’t want it seen as ethnographic,” said Dewan, who curates the Royal Ontario Museum’s department of South Asian arts and culture. “And others have said you can also appreciate it for its context.”
Borden’s statement of how he sees his collection primarily as art intrigued Dewan as well as other museum curators.
“Many collectors don’t necessarily have an opinion about how their collections are represented, but in this case, there seems to be a sort of conviction on how these works should be framed,” Dewan said.
“We have many, many things that are religious in their creative spirit and we want people to be aware of that,” added Dan Rahimi, Dewan’s colleague at the Royal Ontario Museum.
According to Rahimi, that’s why the Royal Ontario Museum chooses not to display the kind of signage the Glenbow Museum has.
“I’ve seen people praying in our galleries,” Rahimi said. “And that’s cool, that’s their business. That’s not why we display things, but we don’t try to discourage that in any way. Our galleries are very public and people can make of things what they like.”
Though Melanie Kjorlien, the Glenbow Museum’s vice-president of access, agreed that Borden’s artistic focus is “a valid viewpoint,” she said that the museum’s official position is to “provide visitors with the religious context and the spiritual context, as opposed to just purely looking at them as works of art.”
To explain this religious context, each piece in the gallery is accompanied by a label detailing which deity is depicted and what it meant to those who worshipped it. All the labels were written by Glenbow staff.
“Mr. Borden wanted to really put across his viewpoint, but then the rest of the messaging is a bit more specific to the actual uses of the collection,” said Carter. “We chose to try and bring out that diversity of messaging.”
Carter said more work on achieving that balanced, diverse approach was being planned back in 2009.
“When I left the museum, we’d been trying to do some significant upgrades to the gallery because I think what’s happened over time is there probably is some mixed messaging in there,” Carter said. “As you determine new information, you update a label, you do these little bits of things, and it’s not hanging together in the same way it did when it was a brand new gallery.”
Though that hasn’t happened yet, Kjorlien says that museum staff still plans on giving the exhibit a facelift.
“It does need to be updated, but I think it requires a pretty cohesive and overall approach,” Kjorlien said. “Ideally, what we’d like to do is readdress that exhibition as a whole. I think it deserves a bit of a refresh. The material is incredible, and it’s an outstanding collection for Calgary and for Western Canada. It’s definitely something that we talk about, but as an institution, we just haven’t been in a position financially to address it the way that it should be.”
Kjorlien said the museum would like to rejuvenate the gallery within the next two years, and will consult with Borden once they have a more concrete idea of the updates they want to make.
The sand mandala ceremony
Many Faces, Many Paths: Art of Asia isn’t the only way the Glenbow Museum celebrates the religions of the world’s largest continent.
Every four to five years, the museum hosts a group of lamas (monks) from the Dzongkar Choede Monastery in South India. The monks construct a sand mandala, an intensely spiritual symbol that is used in both Buddhism and Hinduism.
Susan Barratt has worked at the museum for over 20 years, and has witnessed two ceremonies herself.
“It’s wonderful to watch them do it,” she said. “They’re sitting on the floor hunched over for a week. This is effort, this is love, this is dedication.”
“When you’re around them, you just glow,” Barratt continued. “They’re so friendly, they’re so informative. It’s just a joy to be around these monks.”
While there is no set date for the monks to return to the museum, it is something they do regularly and they are sure to make another appearance in the coming years.
The Glenbow Museum and the Bumper Development Corporation
Thousands of members of the public have now had the chance to see the beauty of Asia’s religions thanks to Many Faces, Many Paths. But parts of that collection were once in private hands.
Beth Carter said Bumper Development’s contributions to that exhibit were initially displayed in the company’s office buildings and in some of the homes of its employees.
“They were working with an Asian art specialist out of New York City who was helping them develop their collection,” Carter explained.
But the size and quality of the collection grew to the point that the company chose to display it in a more public setting. Calgary was chosen to host the collection because of its status as the Bumper Corp.’s home base, and the Glenbow Museum happily accepted.
“It was an area where Glenbow did not have strong collections at that time,” Carter said.
By 1989, the phasing-in of what would come to be known as the Bumper Collection had begun.