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Art and Conservation Form a Critical Part of Buddhist Studies

Students in the Master’s of Buddhist Art and Conservation program studying a work of Chinese Buddhist art. From The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Centre for Buddhist Art and Conservation

The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Centre for Buddhist Art and Conservation at the Courtauld Institute of Art will soon celebrate the first year of its master’s program. The degree’s director, Dr. Giovanni Verri, told me that six students submitted their dissertations in September and will graduate this month, while a new cohort of students has just started. Some pending graduates have expressed an interest in continuing through a doctorate in Buddhist art, while others have applied for jobs in museums. “The students submitted their feedback report on the master’s program, and according to the Student Union representative, we received the highest score of all master’s degrees at the Courtauld—pleasant news indeed!” said Dr. Verri.

The master’s course is a milestone in Buddhist Studies because it is one of the only taught graduate programs in the world that prioritizes the conservation of Buddhist art and culture within a Buddhist Studies degree. The “traditional” foci of translating and analyzing texts have often taken precedence. Textual and translation studies (and the learning of liturgical languages like Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan) have been seen as paramount in Buddhist Studies since the 19th century. A similar recognition for the study of art and conservation is overdue—this MA was only established in 2013. Historically, visual media were a powerful communicator of religious ideas (Rhi 2013, 1–14). And if art was so important to Buddhists in the past (Skilling 2013, 28), its conservation should be a central component of Buddhist Studies alongside the study of texts.

Robert Yau Chung Ho, the chairman of The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation, is a believer in the collaboration between traditional and modern methods of study: “Art and culture have actually always been part of Buddhist Studies. But I find that in academic institutions, very often the disciplines don’t automatically intersect,” he suggested. “The traditional Buddhist scholar was usually more concerned about the texts, and had limited knowledge of the ‘arts’ or ‘art history’ unless it was associated with a particular text. The art historian had limited knowledge of Buddhism, and conservators were mainly ‘technicians.’ It took an interested and dedicated student to acquire knowledge by himself or herself in all these areas.” 

Now, a student need not attempt this alone: studying art and conservation as a part of Buddhist Studies can open cross-disciplinary possibilities with scientists, chemists, geologists, and specialists from other fields traditionally unconnected to Buddhist Studies. For example, Claudio Seccaroni of Italy’s Cultural Heritage Section of the National Agency for New Technologies (ENEA) will give a lecture on thangkas at the Courtauld on 30 October. Mr. Seccaroni is neither a conservationist nor a Buddhist Studies professor. He is a chemical engineer knowledgeable in X-radiography, infrared reflectography, and other methods now being used to analyze the pigments and color notations of Tibetan thangkas.

The centre’s MA students come from fairly diverse disciplines, from art history to religious studies. But regardless of academic background or ambition, every student shares a common interest in the objects of Buddhism. “Studying how to preserve them for posterity gives them a different perspective on how to read an object and adds an important layer to their significance,” said Dr. Verri. It is the objects of stone, wood, gold, silver, and bronze that motivate these students. Years and decades of writing, fieldwork, and analysis are devoted to preserving them.

Dr. Verri believes that most students would like to go on to a career that offers opportunities in curatorship or collection management. This love of the material and touchable testimonies to Buddhism’s existence is bringing a much-needed “corporeal” dimension to Buddhist Studies. Ask any museum visitor what they think of a Buddhist item and they will tell you how it looks, how its curves and contours appear, about the aura of the thing. They might tell you how it makes them feel: calm, at peace, or even awestruck, are commonly used expressions. This joy cannot be shared without protecting the objects that give rise to those positive emotions.

But what exactly should we understand by “art and culture”? Is it restricted to material heritage alone? “In fact when I say ‘art and culture,’ I don’t just limit myself to ‘sculpture’ and ‘paintings,’” clarified Robert. “I also think of institutions, monasteries, rituals, texts, and so on. I think of it as all the traditional practices associated with Buddhism.” For Robert, Buddhist Studies has the immense potential to build a holistic curriculum around the totality of Buddhist heritage. For all the hard work that reflects the Ho family foundation’s philanthropy, he has a nuanced and spiritual outlook on how Buddhist art should be treated: “Buddhism teaches impermanence, emptiness, and so on, and that our incorrect views about these issues cause our suffering in this relative world. So it may seem one should not be overly concerned with preservation and conservation of Buddhist ‘art.’ I nonetheless feel that an understanding of the entire history and context of Buddhism and its art and culture is important for one’s Buddhist practice,” he advised.

But it goes beyond the personal. In Robert’s opinion, Buddhist art belongs to everybody, and we therefore have a shared responsibility towards it. “Certainly, Buddhist history and its arts are a crucial component of humankind’s collective heritage,” he reflected in closing. “And it goes without saying that the preservation and conservation of Buddhist ‘art and culture’ are a worthwhile and vital endeavor for the world.”

Thanks to the centre’s teachers and students and the Ho family foundation, this mission will continue well into the future.


Rhi, Juhyung. 2013. “Presenting the Buddha: images, conventions, and significance in early Indian Buddhism.” In Art of Merit: Studies in Buddhist Art and its Conservation, edited by David Park, Kuenga Wangmo, and Sharon Cather, 1–18. London: Archetype Publications.

Skilling, Peter. 2013. “Rhetoric of reward, ideologies of inducement: why produce Buddhist ‘art’?.” In Art of Merit: Studies in Buddhist Art and its Conservation, edited by David Park, Kuenga Wangmo, and Sharon Cather, 27–37. London: Archetype Publications.

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