Monday, October 4, 2010

penn museum of archaeology and anthropology

So a couple weeks ago I went to the penn museum of archaeology and anthropology in Philadelphia. It's very nice; it only costs $6 with a valid college student ID. But they have lots of special promotions and such for discounts. Even so, full price is $12 which isn't terrible. The museum has three floors and myriad exhibits. I spent two hours in the China and Greek exhibits alone. There's a full fledged Egyptian temple on the second or first floor that I didn't get to see. I had to do a small paper on one of the rooms and its layout, I figure I'd share it here cause it's so short:

Leading up to the main Chinese exhibit, there is a small, rectangular room displaying several Buddhist pieces from both China and Japan. In this small segue varying statues, tapestries, and sculptures are on display. Buddhism didn't enter China until the early first and second centuries A.D. through trade with India. Note that Buddhism wasn't always tolerated in China; it conflicted too much with existing Confucian ideals to be widely accepted. It, however, did become increasingly popular and prevalent throughout China's society. Translating the Sanskrit Buddhist texts and combining their meaning with existing Taoists ideals allowed for a more cohesive conversion to Buddhism. Chinese Buddhism is very mystical and religious. There are many ceremonies, traditions, offerings, and other religious rites that permeate throughout Chinese Buddhism.
The main room is fairly large, round, and has an incredible ceiling. There is symmetry pertaining to the orientation of the exhibit. Many pieces have a direct counterpart standing on the opposite side of the room. It culminates into a visually pleasing perception of the room. Two massive murals dominate the background, focusing your eyes towards the center. In the middle of the room there is a large, perfectly spherical, forty-nine pound crystal ball on a beautifully molded wave of metal.

Every piece has an uncanny level of detail. The time and effort required of these pieces must have been extensive and it shows. Beautifully crafted statues portray great religious figures performing sacred deeds. Processions of men, horse drawn chariots, and several other creatures were meticulously carved into pedestals and statue bases. There's a story for almost all the displays. Even though there are many different pieces on display, most of them fall under a distinct category. Religious, ceremonial, and/or royal. Several statues, figures, etc. were explicitly meant for the deceased to ensure a safe passage into the afterlife, such as horse or camel statues, ornate figurines, miniature buildings, and other traditional items. Many other displays are overtly Buddhist. Countless statues depict Bodhisattvas representing certain qualities like the sun, moon, compassion, protection, etc. The huge influence of Chinese culture created a unique blend of Buddhist and Chinese ideals. A predominate amount of the display was originally intended for the royal Chinese aristocrats and rich. Most of the goods deliberately for burial were labor intensive and expensive to make. Commoners did not have the luxury of posthumous gifts. One particular aspect of Buddhism that carried over into Chinese culture, the emphasis placed on the power and symbol of the lion, has led to an interesting result. As grave markers and guardians, figures of lions were placed at the entrance of burial tombs but, lions are not indigenous to China. The lion statues don't quite look like lions, which has become a trademark of these Chinese works of art.    
Accentuating the symmetry of the room, several sets of grave markers are on display. Usually made in pairs, these ceremonial pieces were reserved for those that could have afforded them. The two sets on display both have a matching pair of male and female figures. Several key differences differentiate the male and female figures from each other. The female statue has horizontal lines running across its puffed up chest while the male has vertical lines running from its chest, down across its body. In the center of the room are three benches. They form a triangle with the giant crystal ball in the middle. This item existed for no other reason than sheer opulence. The last empresses of imperial China is said to have adored the massive crystal. The crystal is believed to be the second largest in the world.
The multitude of pieces spanning over multiple millennia from countless dynasties are a wonder to behold. Through trade routes, an ancient idea spread. It caught hold off an entire nation and profoundly changed all of history. The Buddhism that spread through China was amorphous and free flowing; it branched off into numerous different schools all throughout the east. Eventually reaching Japan, the concept of Zen Buddhism was formed. The whole exhibit wouldn't even exist if it wasn't for the influential power of human thoughts and ideas.
As a whole, the exhibit accomplishes a lot. The emphasis of religion is stressed through the mass amount of religious items on display. Everyday people would travel to temples filled with sacred items to pray, make offerings, seek advice, etc. Monks would devote their entire lives to Buddhism through countless means. Some would take to the temple life, they would spend their days reciting sutras, performing ceremonies, and helping their temple, among many other things. Religion infiltrated every aspect of their lives. In connection with religion, people were also infatuated with the afterlife. The royal built massive burial sites and filled them with a myriad of different goods and items. The number of statues and ceremonial items that adorned the grave sites clearly shows the importance of the afterlife to the ancient Chinese people. The Chinese culture begins to unravel before you as you explore the exhibit. With the use of many different religious and ceremonial items, a piece of ancient China begins to comes back to life.

The museum really is quite impressive, the entire area is beautiful; but I guess that's the general impression you get when you walk around an ivy league campus. There's the website, it should talk about the new exhibits and specials they're having. Hopefully you guys found my interpretation of the China exhibit interesting, have a good one.


  1. Sounds like a very interesting time. I'd like to go see a decent museum one of these days. Sadly I haven't been able too :(