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Note on the AAM installation

Tibet: Treasures From the Roof of the World


Rare, sacred and dazzling treasures of Tibet, never before seen in the Western World, will begin a national tour at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art on October 12, 2003.

The landmark exhibit, which is dubbed Tibet: Treasures from the Roof of the World, will feature almost 200 priceless objects drawn exclusively from collections from the Dalai Lama's magnificent residence at the Potala Palace, as well as the recently established Tibet Museum in the magical Tibetan capital of Lhasa.

Stunning examples of Tibetan sculpture, painting and textiles from the Potala Palace, as well as ritual Buddhist objects and beautifully crafted pieces made for Tibetan nobility, will reveal both the religious underpinnings of this great world culture and the exceptional nature of the arts.

Tibet: Treasures from the Roof of the World has been organized by the Bowers Museum and will embark on a national tour after it closes at the world famous Southern California museum in May 2004.

The landmark exhibit is part of a historic agreement signed by Bowers Museum President Peter C. Keller and the Cultural Administration of Tibet. The agreement culminated more than 18 months of intense negotiations with Tibetan and Chinese officials to secure the loan of the valuable and rare treasures.

"They are objects that are at the center of myths and legends found in the 1,000-room Potala Palace, which was built in the 1600s by the fifth Dalai Lama," Dr. Keller says.

Located at the crossroads of Central Asia, Tibet has long interacted with her neighbors, importing Buddhism from India in the 7th century and developing diplomatic relations with the Mongol, Manchu and Chinese courts shortly thereafter. Tibetans transformed the various outside influences into a truly unique culture that combines Buddhist ideals of moral behavior with cosmopolitan taste in art.

The exceptional objects for Tibet: Treasures from the Roof of the World have a close relationship with the Dalai Lama and members of the nobility, and represent the finest art ever made in Tibet and for its leaders.

One of Southern California's finest museums and Orange County's largest, the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art is a nationally celebrated institution of art and culture dedicated to the preservation, study and exhibition of fine arts from around the world. It is our guiding philosophy that learning about people through their arts will lead us to a greater understanding of ourselves and a fuller appreciation of the marvelous diversity of the world in which we live. The Museum's location, close to four major freeways and four miles south of Disneyland, makes the Bowers an ideal destination for visitors to Southern California.

The Potala Palace
[Potala (Po-tal-a) Pure Land, High Heavenly Realm]

The 1,000-room Potala Palace, the symbol of Lhasa and a treasure of Tibetan history, religion, culture and arts, sits at the peak of Potala Hill, a remote, yet breathtaking and picturesque mountainous hilltop at the edge of the roof of the world.

The imposing, grand palace, originally built in the 7th Century, is a unique architectural marvel that features towering buildings with golden roofs, skyscraper-like sloping walls, richly decorated sanctuaries, reception and state rooms, and a collection of mammoth castle palaces divided into two sections: the "Red Palace" and "White Palace."

The upper "Red Palace" served a religious function, housing the living quarters of the Dalai Lama, the gold-plated tombs of eight previous Dalai Lamas, a library containing religious scriptures and numerous temples, chapels and shrines featuring thousands of Buddhist sculptures.

The "White Palace" served a political function, incorporating the offices and living quarters of the Tibetan government, a seminary to train future government officials as well as a printing press. The "White Palace" is where the living Buddha, Dalai, Tibet's religious leader, handled government affairs and lived.

Directly below these ceremonial areas are quarters for the monks and servants along with two treasuries, one for the Dalai Lama and the other for lesser Lamas and Regents. Lower still lay granaries and storehouses filled with gifts from pilgrims as well as the ever-present yak butter needed to light the Potala's countless votive lamps. At the base of the Potala, carved into rock, were dungeons where prisoners were kept closely guarded.

Exhibition Description

Tibet: Treasures from the Roof of the World is organized into four thematic sections: History and Culture of Tibet, Ritual Objects, Paintings, Sculptures, and Textiles, and Daily Life of the Tibetan Nobility. The dramatic and scared treasures are complemented with exquisitely illustrated graphics, supplemented with an audio tour.

History and Culture of Tibet
Visitors will learn about the rich history and traditions of the mysterious land of Tibet through informative panels, and illustrated timelines, photomurals and key objects. The brilliantly crafted, gilt copper sculpture of Songtsen Gambo, for instance, is a rare surviving image of the king who united Tibet into a strong empire in the 7th century. Through his marriage to two Buddhist princesses (from Nepal and China), he established Buddhism as the dominant religion in Tibet.

Ritual Objects
This section will explore the fascinating world of Tibetan Buddhism. Dr. Robert Clark, a specialist in Tibetan Buddhist practices, will provide detailed descriptions of the rich and truly unique objects on view and the content for their ritual use. Several examples of Tibetan prayer wheels made of various and costly material are displayed. These ritual objects hold printed prayers are rolled up and placed inside the wheel, which is turned while a person recites the "six syllable" mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum (translated as "the jewel on the lotus").

Paintings, Sculptures and Textiles
Among the most famous Tibetan works of art are the colorful thangkas or devotional paintings. Thangkas vary in size, depending on use. Smaller ones were often rolled up and carried by lamas, who displayed them as educational tools before congregations. Other thangkas were permanently displayed in temples. Twenty thangkas will be featured in this exhibition section. All are of the highest quality, many dating back to the 13th century. Observers will marvel at the range of materials used in the creation of thangkas. Many were painted on stiffened canvas and framed with a border of Chinese brocade. Others were meticulously embroidered into Buddhist deities and important figures in Tibetan history. Test panels will further explain the elaborate process followed by Tibetan artists, whose production of thangkas is a religious act in and of itself. Visitors will also learn about the consecration ceremonies, when the painting was blessed and then "animated", making it a powerful devotional tool.

Daily Life of Tibetan Nobility
The final section feature an array of stunning objects, including costumes, jewelry, and exquisitely crafted vessels that were used during daily and ceremonial activities. Some of these objects, like the Chest Ornament, served both decorative and religious functions. This example carried, in the turquoise and coral-studded box, a tiny sculpture of a Buddhist deity thought to protect the wearer.

Exhibition Curators

Terese Tse Bartholomew, guest curator and catalog author, M.A. History of Chinese Art, University of California, Los Angeles. She is Curator of Himalayan Art and Chinese Decorative Art at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, where she has served in the curatorial department since 1968. She was curator-in-charge of Mongolia: The Legacy of Chinggis Khan (1995) and wrote the catalog with Patricia Berger. Other publications include Precious Deposits: Historical Relics of Tibet, which she edited (2000).

Patricia Berger, guest curator and catalog author, Ph.D. Chinese Art, University of California, Berkeley. She is Associate Professor of the History of Art at the university. Previously, Berger served as Curator of Chinese Art at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. Her research interests are Chinese tomb art, Buddhist art, the art of Mongolia, and Himalayan art. Representative of her publications are Tomb Treasures from Ancient China: The Buried Art of Xián (1994) and Mongolia: The Legacy of Chinggis Khan, with Terese Bartholomew (1995).

Robert Warren Clark, guest curator and catalog author, Ph.D. Tibetan Studies, University of Virginia. He is an independent scholar and consultant to the Himalayan Department at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, and serves as Curator of the Bernard-Murray Collection of Tibetan Art and Artifacts at the University of California, Berkeley. Mr. Clark has lectured widely on Tibetan studies, and has published more than 55 Tibetan texts. He worked as an interpreter at the private office of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, in Dharmasala, India, and is a Tibetan language interpreter for Tibetan lamas teaching in the U.S.


October 12, 2003 - May 16, 2004
The Bowers Museum, Santa Ana, California

June 16, 2004 - September 15, 2004

October 16, 2004 - January 8, 2005
Houston Museum of Natural Science

February 19, 2005 - May 9, 2005
Rubin Museum of Art, New York, New York

June 12, 2005 - September 11, 2005
Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

all images and text © Bowers Museum, Tibet Museum & Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

Note on the AAM installation