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The Patan Museum by G. Hagmuller

   March 29, 2002


Already as children we have felt an inexpressible chill as we peered into the dark depth of an alcove which no ray of sun ever reached. Where is the key to this mystery? Ultimately it is the magic of shadows. If the shadows were banned from its corners, the alcove would become a mere void.
Jun’ichiro Tanazaki: In Praise of Shadows

In Asia, light and darkness seem to be much closer together than in our minds. As two sides of the same coin they belong to each other. What our occidental intellect divides into particles, opposites, contrasts, and cause and effect, in the holistic world view of the Orient appears as a whole, a totality with no distinct borders, both this and the other, yin and yang, darkness and light.

“In Praise of Shadows” is a pensive and still provocative essay on the oriental perception of beauty, written in the 1930s by the Japanese novelist Jun’ichiro Tanazaki. He reflects upon the different attitudes between East and West with regard to darkness and light:

Darkness does not distress us; we surrender to it as inevitable. If light is scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty. But the progressive Westerner is set upon always to better his lot. From candle to oil lamps, from oil lamps to gaslight, and on to the electrical one. His quest for better light never ends, he spares no pains to eradicate even the slightest of shadows.

Since the time of the Gothic cathedrals, the Christian sanctuary, the altar, stands in the brightest part of the church. And when we exhibit Darkness and Light Museum Design the precious old idol of a saint in a museum today, then it is always in the best possible spotlight. For us, darkness is negative, murky; in the Western perception of architecture light is essential. “The sun never knew how wonderful it was”, the architect Louis Kahn once said in Kathmandu, “until it fell on the wall of a building”. Some 40 years earlier, Le Corbusier had written in the same vein: “Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of built volumes brought together in light. To see form under light is what our eyes are made for.”

In Nepal, however, the gods dwell in darkness, in the smoky, innermost shrine of the temple, surrounded in stillness by a few butter or oil lamps. Only rarely do they leave this abode: then, however, the gods are bathed with water and light and are carried around through their cities in festive processions, until they return again to the darkness of their sanctuaries.

Many of the treasures now in the Patan Museum have been taken from their places of worship long time ago, as previously stated mostly by thieves, and were kept in government godowns, with no record of their original sites. This posed a serious question: Should we treat these bronze sculptures as the deities which they are, or as art objects and exhibits? Should one leave them in the darkness of a deep alcove, with traces of blood sacrifice and vermilion on them, the golden patina just barely lit, or should one expose them to bright daylight or its equivalent of cold halogen or fluorescent illumination, profaning them once and forever to become objects in the histories of religion and art?


There is no denying (and for some it is even consoling) that the transfer of icons and ritual objects from churches and temples to museums and private collections divorces religious art from its lived experience, in worship of the Divine, but also elevates it to the status of a secular religion - the worship of art.

Can we, to paraphrase Joseph Beuys, forego a grace which goes beyond beauty? Would not a humane museum concept almost demand that the gods of an ancient culture be left, as far as possible, in their context and not be divested of darkness, their most common shroud?

It would have been a great relief at the time of these early reflections, had I known the opinion of Ian Alsop, a scholar of Newar scripture and culture (and operator of an Asian art domain on the Internet which also hosts the website of the Patan Museum). When we discussed a draft of this chapter, he provided the following comment:

“The above use of ‘profaning’ is perhaps too strong. It is true that there is tremendous value in maintaining the state in which these objects are now seen in temples. I feel that the contrast between viewing an image of a deity as a sacred icon and as a work of art do not have to be mutually exclusive, as they are so often thought to be. To see a sculpture in its original condition, cleaned and repaired, divested of offerings of clothing, jewelry and puja powder, and under flattering lighting, is not necessarily to profane it. From a certain point of view one can make a strong case that it is in fact the reverse.

The difference between a statue in a temple and a statue in a museum is more in the attitudes of the people who view it than in the lighting. I remember visiting the display of Bertie Aschmann’s collection in the Rietberg Museum in Zürich, and being struck by an elderly Tibetan lady performing discreet devotions before the images. They instantly became gods again. I’m sure you’ve seen flowers offered to the Shiva Lingam or coins to Ganesh in the Patan Museum – in fact in almost any museum.

From the other angle, that these sculptures are also art, it was always instructive for me to watch the reactions of my sculptor friends in Patan – all good Buddhists – when they were examining illustrated books of Nepalese art, which they devoured. They praised fine workmanship and elegance, but criticized failings and crudeness. The comments and appreciation were all, quite naturally, from the point of view of the artists. These gods were clearly primarily works of art to them. Since what excited these artists were photographs of well-lit images, it seems obvious that for the perception of art, good light is essential – whereas it does not preclude a devotee’s admiration.”

Anyway, we had not found a precise answer to these questions with regard to the Patan Museum, preferring ambiguous ones which meander between darkness and light. We had to accept as inevitable the metamorphosis of gods into art exhibits, and to illuminate them at least with mellow incandescent lights. The best we could devise in some cases, and as a small consolation to their past, was to emulate the traditional way of lighting a deity’s statue which is from below with oil lamps around it. This was achieved by inserting a mirror at the bottom to reflect the showcase light from above, also giving additional illumination of the exhibit’s contours from below.

Now, before getting lost in these serious and technical matters, let me deviate for a moment with the metamorphosis of another specific and previously sacred object. On my journeys in quest of comparable palace museums at home and abroad, I once came to Schloss Ambras in Tyrol. In the 16th century, this castle had been the summer seat of Ferdinand II, an archduke of the House of Habsburg. It was he who had established one of Europe’s first Wunderkammer or “curiosity cabinets”, as these early forerunners of museums were called. There, in a corn silo renovated for his “collection of collections”, he sheltered a great treasure from overseas that would fall victim of a curious fate. It was the multi-feathered “Crown of Montezuma” which, according to evil tongues, was plucked at least once for its plumes of Quetzal, the bird-god of the Aztecs, to add a feather to the hunting hats of imperial guests in the Alps. Today, the headdress is a showpiece in Vienna’s Ethnographic Museum while a replica, though more complete, must suffice in Mexico City.

One other purpose of visiting Ambras (and thus to return to the subject at hand) was to see Christian Bartenbach, a renowned lighting specialist, in his local studio. He rewarded me with some basic advice on museum illumination and admonished me not to walk into the fashionable trap of exposing singular exhibits with bright spotlights in an otherwise almost dark room. (At that time, I admit, this seemed rather attractive to me, just having seen such a stunning display in Oaxaca, at Rufino Tamayo’s museum of pre-Columbian art, surely one of the finest of Mexico’s many exquisite museums).

Such stark contrasts of light, Dr. Bartenbach said, put a great strain on those functions of the brain which first of all have to consume physiological energy in our need for visual orientation in near darkness, thus leaving only little for the actual “seeing” of objects. The usual result is, as anyone may learn from personal observation, that the museum visitor gets tired much sooner than in less contrasting light conditions - even if one may feel exalted from the little which was actually perceived with full attention.

The existing light conditions in the old galleries in Patan proved conducive for the essence of what I believe to have learned. The many small windows, cut deep into the external walls, provide sufficient daylight, filtered through delicate lattice, to orient oneself. Set rather low and close to the floor, they do not have a blinding effect on one’s eyes when standing in front of a showcase. But when seen in the long perspective of the palace’s narrow rooms, they cast a row of faint glows into the enveloping semi-darkness, picking up the distant glimmer from outside and reflecting it on well-polished floor tiles. In a few places, where such windows would be distractingly mirrored in the glass of a showcase, the windows are shaded with a panel suspended before them.

Within the two galleries of the new and reconstructed East Wing which are much wider however, we limited this daylight for orientation to horizontal strips, openings left between the roof and external walls. These strips of light make the roof seem to float as a wide brim while its interior timber surfaces receive indirectly reflected ambient light. This softens and absorbs the exterior’s dominant blue tones, blending them with the warm hues of the interior. All other gallery illumination comes from incandescent bulbs which spotlight the exhibits, usually from more than one side, before melting into the darker background.

Only one ray of sun penetrates this interior twilight: it comes, and only at noon, through a small triangular hole on the southern wall high up under the roof. Sometimes cutting through the wafting trails of incense smoke, announcing a draft that found its way into the stillness, this shaft of light slowly traces a short-lived arc on the floor to give orientation – both in time and in space – for those who seek it.



The Patan Museum by G. Hagmuller | Articles