Visitors, Viewers, Communities and Tibetan Art

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Master's thesis presentation for the University of Lugano's program in cultural media. Details results of two studies about reception of Tibetan art in Western museums. These include: 1) An ethnographic study of visitors to 14 Dalai Lamas exhibition in Zurich; 2) Social tagging study of young Tibetans in Switzerland


  • 1.Seeing Identities:Visitors, Viewers, Communities and Tibetan ArtUniversity of Lugano Masters thesis Shelley Ann MannionTEC-CH programSeptember 28, 2007Addition and Subtraction Benchung, 2006

2. Museum display of Tibetan artTwo empirical research projects Western and Tibetan responses to exhibition Social tagging by Tibetans in SwitzerlandMain findings: seeing identities1. Museum visitors are culturally diverse 2. Museum visit articulates identity 3. Identity determines what is seen 4. Viewing is a complex process for Tibetans5. Tibetan images evoke diverse responses 3. Why is this work important?Growing audience for Tibetan art140,000 Tibetans living outside TibetIncreased Western interest in Tibetan Buddhism Role of Western museumsInheritors of cultural treasuresCan support cultural transmissionMuseums as Contact Zones (Clifford 1997) 4. Research questions 1. Perceptions of Tibetan art2. Visitor reception in ethnographic museums3. Museums and the Tibetan community 5. Research design: mixed methods Phase 1: Museum exhibitionPhase 2: Social tagging Social tagging experiment with 6 works ofVisitor study 14 Dalai Lamas exhibitionTibetan art 36 Western and Tibetan visitors 23 Tibetans and Swiss Tibetans Tag collection, demographic survey,Ethnographic interviews, observationethnographic fieldwork Statistical analysis, interpretation with twoTranscription and narrative analysisoriginal models 6. 14 Dalai Lamas in Zurich The exhibitionAugust 2005 April 200617,000 visitorsInstitution of Dalai LamasTheoretical modelsUser/Visitor Model (Tota)Encoding and decoding (Hall 1980)Perfomativity (Butler 1990)Museum as cultural ecology (Bell 2002) 7. How were visitors conceived?Similar to the curatorIntellectually oriented Sufficient background Educational/visual agenda Quiet, solitary visitors 8. Media: printed catalogue and audio guide Printed catalogue Audio guide 9. Photo alcove 10. Visitor response: Itineraries of identity Itinerary Way identity How artworksexpressedconceived 1) General interestLifestyle connection Sites of shared interest 2) Emotionally connected Imagined citizenship Reminders of travelthrough travel experience3) Buddhist expertsArticulation of Buddhist Sacred objectsfaith4) Intellectual expertsProud of being experts Means to increase knowledge5) TibetansAttempt to preserveSites of culturalcultural knowledge transmission 11. Obstacles to visitors itineraries AttitudesMediaSocial & physical 12. Tibetan attitudes Westerners know Western display is more than usinauthentic 13. Interpretive mediaVehicle integrated into perception Audio guide & catalogueCreated artificial art/culture split (Samis 2007)Did not allow personalization (Martinez 1992)Photo alcovePhotographs irrepressible (Edwards 2001)Open to personalization 14. Seeing Tibetan art through social tagsMethodology Corroborate and complement (Brannen 2005) Metropolitan Museum of Art (Trant 2006) Unique focus on perception Population Tibetans in Switzerland Young (19-40 years old) 1st, 2nd, 3rd generation Tashi Lhazom from Kham, East Tibet 15. Tagging venues 16. Selected artworks 17. Customized steve platformTagging interface 18. Collected tags 440 valid tags (387 unique)German, English, TibetanTag volume influenced by: Venue/Session length Generation 19. Curators versus taggersConfirm Met Museum tests Translation competence of 2nd generationChenresig Dalai Lama female deity/goddess compassion multi-tasking 20. Tag volume by imageTotal valid tags by imageBrief History86 Padmasambhava77 Avalokitesvara71 Shri Devi 70Wheel of Life70Chakrasamvara 66Brief History of Tibet(Tenzing Rigdol, 2003) 21. Correct identificationCorrect identification by imageWheel of Life 14 Padmasambhava 6 Avalokitesvara5Shri Devi 3Chakrasamvara 2 3 levels of recognitionSymbolicWheel of Life (Eastern Tibet, 1700 1799) FamiliarUnknown 22. Word type classificationWord typeExampleProper nameAvalokitesvara (Tibetan or Sanskrit term) Buddhist concept compassion, enlightenmentSemantic analysis Buddhist noundeity, buddhaCounts multiple words Verb or action watches over, protects Feeling or concept equality, fertility, heaven, horrorAdjectivescary, pretty, colorful Noun hand, horse, man, flower 23. Word types by imageWord types by image PadmasambhavaBrief History Proper nameBuddhist concept Avalokitesvara Buddhist nounVerb or actionChakrasamvara Feeling or conceptAdjective Shri DeviNounWheel of Life0% 20%40%60%80%100% 24. Word type conclusionsConfirms 3 levels of recognitionMitigated by aesthetic qualities (Padmasambhava)Culturally-defined language for symbolic and familiar worksPadmasambhavaTibet, 1800 - 1899 25. Engagement classification Type DefinitionExample Subjective Personal or emotional response beautiful colors silky material Buddha watches over us fertility connection/union subjugation frameworkData derived ObjectiveCulturally or intellectually Father-MotherUses groups of tagsdefined response yab-yum Wang (Empowerment) No value judgement Kalachakra Meditation Tantra Non specific No connection or extremely goodweak connection with artwork old valuable authentic real Non tagGeneral commentNever seen image like this I dont know What is this? 26. Engagement by imageEngagement tag types by imageBrief History Shri DeviSubjective PadmasambhavaObjectiveNonspecificChakrasamvaraNontag Avalokitesvara Wheel of Life 0% 20% 40% 60% 80% 100% 27. Factors influencing engagementCultural interest in art and architecture Level of education Number of museums visited Average tags per user by cultural interest 35.030.0 29.6 Number of tags25.0 25.620.0 19.0Valid tags 17.815.014.2 Engaged tags 10.8 5.0 0.0 Music and History and Religion Art anddance exile(Buddhism) architectureFolk dancersBlach, July 2007 28. Engagement conclusionsTaggers have distinctive orientationsDifferent kinds of engagementSymbolic = objective engagement (stock phrases) Unknown/contemporary = subjective engagement(personalization)Personal identity influences engagement 29. Primary insights of this research 1. Complexities on the Tibetan side of theContact ZoneChallenge maintaining culture in exile Self-deprecating attitudes Translation competence of 2nd generation How different images engage viewers TsewangFlawil, Switzerland 30. Primary insights of this research2. New conception of ethnographic museum visitorsCulturally diverse Perform identity Highly active, but constrained by ecology Visit linked to travel experiences 31. Primary insights of this research 3. Insights for effective interpretation Enlarging spaces through open textsBalanced use of media 32. Primary insights of this research4. Success of mixed methods researchQualitative and quantitative data Social tagging and perception 33. Thank you toAll the participantsDekyi, Kyimo, Tenzin KsangThupten, Tashi Lhazom My advisorsProf. Anna Lisa TotaHelen AbbottSusan Chun SponsorsRubin FoundationRubin Museum of Art