Buddha exhibition shows incredible journeys at Cambridge Museum of Archaeology

By James Murray | 10 June 2014

Exhibition preview: Buddha’s Word: The Life of Books in Tibet and Beyond, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge, until January 17 2015

A photo of a buddhist sculpture
Scattered fragments of rare 12th century illuminated Tibetan texts from Keu Lhakang Temple, Central Tibet© Psang Wangdu, 2002
This groundbreaking collaborative project, now on display at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, brings together a unique collection of objects never displayed together before.

Alongside scientific analysis, Buddha’s Word combines expertise in History, Art History, Anthropology and Linguistics in a three-part exhibit supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Bronze figure of Buddha
Statue of Vajrasattva (15th-16th century). Gilt bronze, copper and turquoise. Tibet© Purchased by Louis C.G. Clarke
Co-Curator Dr Hildegard Diemberger hopes that the exhibition as a whole will tell a story of "incredible journeys" made by the Buddha's utterances, crossing mountains and oceans along the path to enlightenment.

After preceding sections have linked the notion of a book as a sacred object with the history and techniques of printing in Tibet, the final room shows visitors how the enormous diaspora of Buddhist teachings developed – eventually stretching all the way from Mongolia to Sri Lanka.

A wide range of important objects are on display, including a Himalayan Altar, several early 11th century illuminated manuscripts and four scroll paintings taken during the Younghusband Expedition of 1903-04.

wooden printing block
A printing block for prayer flag (lunta, rlung rta), used to print the prayer flag with an image of a wind horse© Donated by A.F. Schofield, University Librarian
This association with the brief invasion and occupation of Tibet by British forces, branded as "pointless" by the historian Parshotam Mehra, will nevertheless remind the visitor of the Kipling-esque spirit of adventure which the exhibition’s curators are hoping to draw out from their collection.

The focus on printing techniques is also an apt reminder of the long and distinguished history of printing in Tibet, which was producing books more than 300 years before the Gutenberg press revolutionised the written word in Europe. it continues to employ traditional high-quality techniques to this day.

“It’s a real first,” says Dr Mark Elliott, the museum's Senior Curator in Anthropology.

“A lot of these artefacts have never been seen on display before, and certainly not together.

"But we’re also looking at Tibetan books, and Tibetan Buddhist art, in a completely new way.

"There have been some real surprises during the development of the exhibition and we’re looking forward to sharing some of those.”

  • Open 10.30am-4.30pm (12pm-4.30pm Sunday, closed Monday). Admission free. Follow the museum on Twitter @MAACambridge.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Bronze Buddha
Sahasrabhuja Avalokitesvara (18th century), Gilt bronze, copper, turquoise, and pearls. Tibet© On deposit from Emmanuel College
Chank trumpet
Chank trumpet, sacred in Buddhist and Hindu traditions. Blown at the beginning of rituals, its sound is said to symbolise the sacred syllable Om. Turbinella pyrum shell, gold and bronze. Nepal© Donated by Lady Schuster
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