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Tibetan Treasures at the Bowers Museum

For the last few years, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana has managed to organize a number of high profile exhibitions that would make even larger and better-known museums slightly envious. I discovered this museum, ashamed to admit, only four years ago, when it hosted the exhibition "Splendors from China's Imperial Palace", which provided a glimpse into the secret world of the Forbidden City. Other exhibitions I went to see and liked were "The Dead Sea Scrolls" and "The World of the Etruscans".

Skullcup (Kapala), <I>Tibet, 19th Century, Tibet Museum</I>; Photo Courtesy of Bowers MuseumThanks to a very supportive Trustees, who proved to be surprisingly effective in negotiating directly with cultural authorities in China or Tibet, the Bowers succeeded where other older and more established cultural institutions would probably not have such courage even to try. Talk about the little museum that could! The museum obviously knows its audience and it correctly figured out that if you show The Treasures, the people will come. The current exhibition, "Tibet: Treasures from the Roof of the World", opened in October 2003 and was supposed to be closed in May, but due to popular demand has been extended until September.

King Songtsen Gambo, <I>Tibet, ca. 13th Century Potala Palace Collection</I>; Photo Courtesy of Bowers MuseumThe exhibition is not trying to tell the tumultuous history of Tibet, or to give a concise, chronological development or arts in the region, instead it presents close to 200 sculptures, paintings and beautifully crafted objects, undoubtedly chosen for their ability to appeal to the eyes of a Western audience. With this audience in mind, the museum heavily promotes the fact that the exhibition features "the most sacred and precious treasures from Tibet never before seen in the Western world [and] breathtaking personal treasures of centuries of Dalai Lamas and Tibetan nobility". Among my favorites is the gilt copper statue of a 13th Century King, sitting on a cushion in the lotus position. Achala Chandamaharoshana, <I>Tibet, 13th Century, Tibet Museum</I>; Photo Courtesy of Bowers Museum His eyes and lips accentuated with red paint and eyebrows and hair painted blue. Another beauty is the remarkably well preserved early 13th century woven silk tapestry, baring a fierce image of a deity, whose whole body is defined by the most intense and beautiful blue color you can lay your eyes upon.And let me mention the scary and attractive 19th century ritual bowl made from a human skull and massively decorated with gold and turquoise.

As usual with this museum, the design of the exhibition is elegant and attractive, though labels and wall text are written in a slightly simplistic fashion, as if not to scare people with too much information. Often I get annoyed by the intrusion of projected video displays, but not here, where curators chose the footage well. Basin with Phoenix, <I>China, Qing dynasty, 18th Century, Tibet Museum</I>; Photo Courtesy of Bowers MuseumOn large screens, smartly integrated into the exhibition design, we watch scenes from the everyday life of people in Tibet, the complex rituals conducted by monks during religious ceremonies. We also have a chance to see temples and palaces, including the legendary 1000-room Potala Palace - the magnificent residence of the Dalai Lamas.

After travelling to Houston and New York, the exhibition makes its last stop in San Francisco at the Asian Art Museum. But meanwhile the Bowers Museum is in the midst of preparation for two other blockbusters scheduled for this and next year: "Queen of Sheba" and "Mummies", another guilty pleasure not to be missed.

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