JAIC 1991, Volume 30, Number 1, Article 3 (pp. 13 to 34)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1991, Volume 30, Number 1, Article 3 (pp. 13 to 34)




A REVIEW of the results of past statue openings shows that in fact very little useful information is gained, however interesting the statue contents may be. At the same time, the Tibetan feelings are strong that the sacred nature of a statue is defaced if the contents are removed. It is my opinion that these feelings should be taken very seriously, for several reasons.

First, Tibetan Buddhism is not a dead religion, and this is not a case where the present practitioners are far removed in descent from the people who originally made and used the objects. Therefore, when they talk about museum statues, they are talking about a group of objects some of them may have actually used in worship in the monasteries of Tibet.

Second, we know from historical and ethnographic sources that these sacred statues were never discarded in Tibet in the past but remained forever within the monastery walls. When they became too worn or damaged for ritual use, they were housed in special shrines where they continued to be treated with respect (Snellgrove 1978, 351). The presence today of so many statues in Western museums and private collections is not due to their being willingly sold or discarded by the previous Tibetan owners, but is directly attributable to the relatively recent Chinese invasion of Tibet and the subsequent destruction of a large percentage of its monasteries and the death or uprooting of many practicing Tibetan Buddhists.

Finally, the refugees in India, Nepal, and the West have worked very hard to overcome enormous obstacles and maintain their religion and culture outside of Tibet. We would have to be able to point to great advances in knowledge to be gained by desecrating their sacred objects through opening them in order to even begin to justify that practice.

The previous openings of statues have afforded us an opportunity to document the types and range of objects they may contain. We now have data to compare actual contents with textual and ethnographic descriptions of what the contents should comprise. The question to address now is: Should we open any more statues for study of the interior contents? Although each conservator must decide how to handle curatorial requests, it is my opinion, after reviewing the evidence, that these statues should not be tampered with and that instead, more effort should be expended to find alternative art historical and scientific methods for obtaining the desired information about the history and context of Tibetan bronzes.


THE RESEARCH and writing of this paper were carried out while I was an associate conservation scientist at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Conservation Center. I am grateful to several colleagues for their help. Billie Milam, while senior objects conservator there, and Steve Cristin-Poucher, objects conservator, opened the statues with great care. Victoria Blyth-Hill, senior paper conservator, handled all of the paper objects recovered and prepared them so they could be safely studied. All photographs were taken by John Gebhard and Adam Avila of the Conservation Center. Rainer Berger from the UCLA Radiocarbon Laboratory provided the carbon-14 dates. Pieter Meyers, in numerous discussions about these pieces, had many insightful suggestions. Terry Reedy made suggestions regarding the organization of the paper that resulted in significant improvements in clarity. I also wish to thank all of the Tibetan teachers who kindly took the time to respond to my questionnaire. An earlier version of this paper was presented in the General Session at the 17th annual meeting of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, Cincinnati, 1989.

Copyright 1991 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works