Buddhist Art Forum 2012: The Headache of Conserving Buddhist Art

The goal of conserving material heritage seems simple enough. We want to prolong the life and condition of the archaeological sites, temples, and museum pieces scattered all over the world so that future generations can learn their value and place in that vague, troubled category called “Buddhist art.” The problem is that never mind “Buddhist art,” we often aren’t sure what we mean by conservation either.

For example, a dilemma faced by many scholars after World War II was that the very artifacts their careers depended on had been taken out of their original countries by European or Japanese explorers. A commonsense proposal has been to give back the items to their original country, in the same way many are asking the British Museum to hand over the Elgin Marbles to Greece. Surely it insults the artifact’s integrity that it should stay in a foreign museum, far removed from wherever it was found. It is almost certain that the Elgin Marbles, if returned, will be received in Athens with great reverence. They will enjoy the red carpet treatment, enshrined in a national monument as a fundamental part of Greece’s heritage to Europe. But can we say the same for many Buddhist artifacts? If they’re returned right now to some regions in, say, Afghanistan or the Middle East, might they be caught in the crossfires of war or political and social turbulence?

Day three of the Buddhist Art Forum at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London (11th – 14th April) was all about exploring this dilemma. There are no easy answers. What do we really mean when we say we want to conserve Buddhist art?

The challenges are obvious. Buddhism’s traditional homeland is the landmass of Asia, and Asia is vast. Globally, there are probably only a couple hundred academics, artists, or writers who are interested in the conservation of Buddhist art, and even they will be forced to specialize in only several sites, or several regions. I have yet to meet a conservator who has the energy or time to devote herself to the sites of Therav?da, Mah?y?na, and Vajray?na Buddhism in one lifetime.

Remoteness is also a problem. There are many fragile temples that are sealed off to journalists, surrounded by natural barriers, or in a state of accelerated decay due to a lack of regular maintenance. Some are politically sensitive sites. Others have been compromised by economic priorities, like Mes Aynak in Afghanistan, which is sitting on large reserves of copper and will soon be drilled out in a business deal between the Afghan government and a Chinese company. At some sites like the Bamiyan Buddhas, it’s not strictly a matter of conservation but desperate salvaging, since they were deliberately destroyed in a frenzy of human hate and misguided fanaticism.

Even without these headache-inducing concerns, there are more practical questions about ethics, documentation, and reconstruction from a practical research perspective. At the Forum, Dr. Christian Luczanits pointed out that conserving some temples in Tibet has been more about “intervention” than conservation – that is, restoring an object rather than protecting it from further damage. Of course, due to an artifact’s natural wear and tear, conservative intervention is necessary for any piece of history. But the western Himalayas is a perfect instance of how earthquakes and floods call for major intervention, in some cases actual reconstruction, which seems to contradict the point of conservation in the first place. Some temples have a history of very poor construction methods and materials, with clay roofs turning into swimming pools from rain or snow, or faulty wooden joints bringing entire pillars down.

Do we see these weaknesses as part of a temple’s inviolable history and let preventable disasters do their work? Or should we broaden our scope of conservation and argue that the very act of conservation is to participate in a temple or artwork’s history? After all, in Qing China, restoration was a common way to repair Buddhist temples, which have resulted in “layers” of architecture and art. Surely this trajectory of history can’t be denied, either.

All things are impermanent, and conservation is simply delaying the inevitable. Impermanence is a Buddhist truth and one acknowledged by all conservators. We know all this is impermanent, that nothing lasts forever. Still, we nurture protect these artifacts and monuments because we cherish and respect them as not only voices of the past, but also as objects of sacred devotion. How can we appreciate these temples, shrines, monuments, frescoes, and artworks, as they deserve? Conservation is the art of prolonging history with integrity. Much like raising a family, looking after a child, caring for a friend or lover, or showing concern to a stranger, it is a work of love.

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