Tibet has gained widespread international attention through the activities of the Dalai Lama and the movement to keep Tibetan culture alive in the face of the Chinese juggernaut that threatens to obliterate it.
This makes The Subtlety of Culture -- An Exhibition of Tibetan Artifacts, all the more appealing for those keen to gain an understanding of this mysterious land and the religion which is regarded as at its political and spiritual heart.
The exhibition is significantly more comprehensive than that presented by the Museum of World Religions last year, which although containing a number of prize items, was really too small to draw the viewer in.
The National of Museum of History has gone to the other extreme, seeking to overwhelm its audience with sheer volume, often presenting 20 or 30 examples of a single type of artifact in a display of nearly 1,000 items. It is an enormous pleasure to see the variations on the decorated themes of conch shell horns and ceremonial daggers, skull reliquaries and miniature Buddha images, but for the non-specialist, it is also rather daunting.
It is unfortunate that the museum, with all the resources at is disposal, has not been seen fit to assist its audience very much. The information provided on large placards give highly academic schematic representations of Tibetan cosmology, but fails to provide much explanation of the artistic merits or even use of the objects on display.
The slightly less comprehensive English notes are in a species of "Chinglish" that had this reporter reading them for amusement rather than edification. It is this sort of shoddiness that will continue to undermine the museum's attempt to achieve an international standing.
The slipshod nature of what should otherwise be a fascinating show announces itself as soon as one walks through the main entrance to be faced with a blurry poster of the Potala Palace. Behind this are four huge rooms filled to capacity. The items are arranged according to type, but no attempt has been made to link the artifacts into an overall impression of what Tibetan Buddhism is about. Given the richness of the collection, this is a great pity.
Having said all this, the artifacts themselves are of great beauty and the many examples of any given object allows the viewer to explore the variations on a single theme -- the subtle difference in the crafting of ceremonial daggers and the elaborate decoration of conch shell horns. It is here that the strength of The Subtlety of Culture -- An Exhibition of Tibetan Artifacts lies and makes it a must-see for anyone interested in Asian or religious art.
The Subtlety of Culture -- An Exhibition of Tibetan Artifacts will be at the National Museum of History, Taipei until Oct. 19.