In the Samuel Hall Currelly Gallery, the large bronze statue of the Vairocana Buddha sits to the right of the first floor washrooms, and just beyond the entrance to the Matthews Family Court of Chinese Sculpture. Although the bronze figure belongs to the Matthews Family Court collection, the 8 foot by 5 foot statue does not fit in the actual gallery. ((Royal Ontario Museum 2014)) Gifted to the Royal Ontario Museum by D. A. Dunlap, the cast bronze, partially gilded the figure of the Vairocana Buddha comes from Shijiazhuang, a province in Northern China, and is dated to be from around the 16th to mid-17th century. ((ROM Images 2014))
The label provided by the museum chooses to focus on the figure’s religious and artistic significance by stating that Vairocana is known as, “The Buddha of Light… the supreme manifestation of the Buddha principle. He embodies millions of worlds with millions of Buddhas.” ((Royal Ontario Museum Label 2014)) Although the label’s description of Vairocana’s significance provides enough information for a viewer to recognize its importance, scholar of Buddhist philosophy, Francis H. Cook, expands on this description and explains that, “Vairocana Buddha exists everywhere and every time in the universe, and the universe itself is his body.” ((Cook 1972, 403)) Along with Cook’s statement, it becomes easier to understand the artistic rendition of Vairocana and possibly even allows for the interpretation of its symbolic significance. The large bronze statue points to Vairocana’s symbolic immensity, that he is as limitless as the entire universe is. The remnants of gold leaf which remain on the figure may seek to emphasize his status as the Buddha of Light, or the Buddha of Great Illumination. ((Cook 1972, 403)) Although only partially gilded, it is easy to imagine the whole figured covered in gold leaf, bright, compelling, and magnificent.
In Sharon Macdonald’s discussion of experiencing enchantment in museum spaces, the cultural heritage and memory studies scholar observes that, “Museums and religious sites may also share an aesthetic: hushed tones, dimmed lighting, a sense of reverence-of being in communion with the sacred.” ((Macdonald 2005, 209)) Art historian Crispin Paine also acknowledges the similarities between the religious sacred space or temple and the museum, stating that, “great art museums of the world… are deliberately designed as stage sets for a ritual in which the visitor is a principal performer.” ((Paine 2013, 72)) Both Macdonald and Paine recognize the lengths to which curators or even museum architects go in order to create the optimal tone and atmosphere for a museum visitor to view or experience an object. The idea that the museum space is somehow set apart from everyday spaces, and that this separation from the mundane aspects of everyday life is accomplished through lighting techniques, display techniques, and socially learned museum etiquette remains true in the many galleries of the Royal Ontario Museum. The atmosphere of the Samuel Hall Currelly gallery however, is very different from the rest of the Museum. Although it contains many artifacts, they are displayed around the perimeter of the gallery, along the walls, and behind pillars. Most of the space in the Currelly gallery is used either as a seating space for visitors, or as a space to hold social functions where a temporary stage is built right next to the Vairocana Buddha. As a seating space, many families bring their children to the Currelly gallery to run around before entering other galleries where, due to the amount of displayed artifacts and spatial issues is not allowed. When used as a space for social or corporate functions, the gallery is usually closed off from the rest of the museum.
In their study of the characteristics and functions of a museum lobby, cultural studies academics Mortensen, Rudloff and Vestergaard, argue that museum lobbies, “prepare visitors for the experience they are about to have and… [function as] a space for welcoming visitors.” ((Mortensen, et.all 2014, 330)) Moreover, the lobby also works to establish the mood and the frame of mind in which a visitor will experience galleries and artifacts of the museum itself. ((Mortensen, et.all 2014, 330)) In a way, the Currelly gallery functions as a museum lobby. It is in this space, when it is open, that visitors can retain aspects of their everyday lives, like checking their cell phones, taking family pictures, or allowing their children to play, without feeling like they are violating the social etiquette required when visiting a museum. The objects in the Currelly gallery then, can be thought of as welcoming objects, artifacts that are easy to view and naturally compelling, but also artifacts that do not demand the kind of reverence or respect required in other galleries. The welcoming aspect and tone of the Currelly gallery is emphasized on their website, where it states that the Vairocana Buddha is positioned in order to, “welcome visitors.” ((Royal Ontario Museum 2014)) Because of its placement in the Currelly gallery, the viewing experience of the Vairocana Buddha becomes more detached from its social context and viewing experience outside of the museum in its original setting. In addition, the obvious separation between the museum space and the space of the everyday is complicated. Although boundaries are set for some artifacts, in the form of glass cases, the Vairocana Buddha itself is not separated from visitors by any kind of casing or rope. In comparison to the other objects, this implies that the bronze figure is either strong enough to withstand touching from visitors, or that it is not significant or delicate enough to be placed behind a boundary.
The atmosphere of the Currelly gallery is loud, the lighting has an unpleasant yellow hue, and aesthetically, the base the Vairocana Buddha sits upon is an undecorated, plain white square. If the museum site is a frame, and directly informs the visitor’s interpretation of an artifact as stated by Marlene Chambers, a scholar of museum studies, it becomes clear that audiences are not meant to view the Vairocana Buddha with its ritual and religious significance in mind. ((Chambers 2006, 399)) It seems that the ROM purposely influences its visitors to not experience the Vairocana Buddha in a religious or ritualistic way, especially when taking into account its’ placement in the corner of the gallery. Although the label for this figure discloses its religious significance, the label itself is mounted on the upward facing side of the base, making it difficult to locate and read. Despite the attempts to display the Vairocana Buddha without evoking any kind of spiritual interpretation or experience, its mere size is able to draw the visitors’ eye toward it, capturing their attention.
Linda Duke, the director of the Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, discusses museum experiences versus museum lessons, noting that, “aesthetic experiences have particular value as areas for growth because, by nature, they fall outside of the right/wrong, true/false paradigms that pervade American education.” ((Duke 2010, 272)) When viewing the Vairocana Buddha figure for the first time, I was first compelled by the object because of its aesthetic appeal. Although I wanted to learn more about its social and ritual context, who made it, who did they make it for, where was it placed originally, there was something about the calmness and peacefulness of Vairocana’s facial expression that was intriguing. Because there is no right or wrong way to experience an artifact like the Vairocana Buddha, the viewer is likely to be drawn inward to reflect on how objects make them feel, or on their inner thoughts and personal experiences. The subjective experience of museum objects, I propose, is something that might have a longer impact on a visitor than their learning about its historical significance or provenance. The bronze figure of the Vairocana Buddha, in my experience of it, is one of the artifacts with the ability to inspire such an experience. The Buddha itself is not depicted smiling, but somehow, it evokes a smile from visitors as they pass by, or as they take a picture with the figure itself, mimicking the same hand gesture as the Vairocana Buddha.
In response to reception theory, as explored by anthropologists Appadurai and Breckenridge, they state that in the Indian context, “the mutual gaze (darsan) of sacred persons or objects and their audiences create bonds of intimacy and allegiance that transcend the specifics of what is displayed in any given context.” ((Appadurai and Breckenridge 1999, 416)) In the case of my own darsan experience with the Vairocana Buddha, the allegiance I felt toward the artifact manifested itself in my distaste for its placement. My allegiance did not originate from any affiliations with Chinese Buddhism, but from my aesthetic experience, and the personal value I ascribed to the artifact. The ‘specifics’ Appadurai and Breckenridge refer to, can be taken to mean the political conditions with which this artifact was acquired, its ties to colonialism, or perhaps the cultural customs and religious significance the Vairocana Buddha embodies. During my experience however, these particular specifics did not cross my mind. It is important then, to recognize that artifacts in museums are not as passive as we might assume. As viewers, we do not merely see the object, while also imposing our own ideas or biases onto it, and then move on. The artifacts not only inform our experience but also prompt and evoke reactions. Although the Vairocana Buddha sits in the Currelly gallery rather humbly, the figure still maintains a kind of agency in the way it affects and attracts its viewer visually, but also personally.
- Appadurai, Arjun, and Carol Breckenridge. 1999. “Museums are Good to Think: Heritage onView in India.” In Representing the Nation: A Reader: Histories, Heritage, and Museums, edited by Jessica Evans and David Boswell, 404-420. London: Routledge.
- Chambers, Marlene. 2006. “The Bride Stripped Bare: Art Museums and the Power of Placement.” Curator: The Museum Journal 49: 398-409.
- Cook, Francis, H. 1972. “The Meaning of Vairocana in Hua-yem Buddhism.” Philosophy East and West 22: 403-415.
- Duke, Linda. 2010. “The Museum Visit: It’s an Experience, Not a Lesson.” Curator: The Museum Journal 53: 271-279.
- Macdonald, Sharon. 2005. “Enchantment and it’s Dilemmas: The Museum as a Ritual Site.” In Science, Magic, and Museums: The Ritual Processes of Museum Magic, edited by Mary Bouquet and Nuno Porto, 209-228. New York: Berghahn.
- Mortensen, Christian H., Maja Rudloff, and Vitus Vestergaard. 2014. “Communicative Functions of the Museum Lobby.” Curator: The Museum Journal 57:329-346.
- Paine, Crispin. 2013. Religious Objects in Museums: Private Lives and Public Duties. London: Bloomsbury. 71-79.
- ROM Images. 2014. “Bronze Figure of Vairocana Buddha.” Last modified 2014.
- Royal Ontario Museum. 2014. “Matthews Family Court of Chinese Sculpture.” Last modified September 2014.
- Royal Ontario Museum Label. 2014. “Vairocana Buddha.”
Contributor Biography: Vanessa R. Miraples
Vanessa R. Miraples graduated with a BA (Hons.) from the University of Toronto with majors in English Literature and Religion in June 2015. She is currently a Master of Information candidate at the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto with concentrations in archives and records management, and library science. She is particularly interested in the history of the city of Toronto and the ways personal narratives about the city can be preserved, curated, and presented to the public.