Loading icon

An Art History

Arts & Culture | February 20, 2018

“This would be a national treasure if it were still in Japan,” explained Ikumi Kaminishi, Associate Professor of Buddhist art at Tufts University, to her Asian Art survey class a year ago.

On the projector screen, Miroku, the Bodhisattva of the Future, stares out at the students from behind crystalline eyes, his expression regal, his face unfurrowed. Carved from Japanese Cypress and overlaid with gold, Miroku stands upon an unfolding lotus flower. His robes fall in exquisite detail as he extends his palm to the earth in a gesture of charity.

This 12th century statue can be found in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ Japanese Buddhist Gallery. One might wonder, as I did then in the lecture hall: if the statue is Japan’s national treasure, what is it doing in Boston? Was it stolen? Smuggled? Excavated illegally? The truth is: it’s complicated. In fact, with museum acquisitions, it usually is.

The Miroku statue is world class. Miroku’s sculptor, the 12th century Master Kaikei, reinvented Buddhist sculpture along with his brother Unkei, she said. Their superb figures brought a Buddhist revival to Nara, the cultural center where their workshop was located. “Kaikei is like half of Michelangelo,” said Kaminishi. “The other half is his brother.”

So, why is Miroku on Fenway Ave?

***

Western museums touting the artifacts and artwork of non-Western peoples and countries, in many cases the ex-colonies of Europe, are criticized as being tools of colonialism and domination. This is especially true of older European museums like the Louvre, Berlin’s Museum of Natural History, and the British Museum explains Andrew McClellan, a Tufts professor of Museum Studies.

And, frankly, they are.

“Museums are tools of empire,” said Joseph Walser, a professor of religion at Tufts University. “They make statements of power… It’s saying ‘you have to come here to see your treasures.’” McClellan agrees: “[Museums] are tools of civic pride and power, and they always have been.”

A museum speaks on behalf of its country. “Museums are now the necessary ornaments of any nation state,” said McClellan. “One of the first things you see, if you look at the founding of new nations, is a move to create national museums, and [museums] become a kind of reflection of civilization that all nations aspire to.”

To provide stewardship for the world’s treasures suggests that the patron’s commitment to preserving global heritage underscores their ability to foster such care, and denotes their dedication to a pedagogical mission.

For the last two centuries, museums have gathered up artwork around the world by claiming what McClellan calls “The Salvage Paradigm.” The argument runs thus: “if we don’t step in to save this, it will be destroyed.”

The Salvage Paradigm can lead to questionable acquisitions. In 1924, the explorer Langdon Warner (1881-1955) removed twelve murals from China’s Dunhuang caves and transferred them to Harvard’s Fogg Museum for preservation, said The Crimson. The Dunhuang Museum now accuses the Fogg of theft.

The Salvage Paradigm is what allows the British Museum to hang onto the Parthenon marbles, which once decorated the Parthenon at Athens, explained McClellan. Between 1801 and 1805, Lord Elgin bought half of the remaining Parthenon Marbles from the Ottoman government, which then controlled the region, says the British Museum’s website. Elgin sold them to the British Museum for £35,000 in 1816.

Since Greece formed as a nation in the 1830’s, it has been trying to get the marbles back. The Acropolis Museum in Athens stands waiting to receive them. “Greece is saying to the world,” said McClellan, “‘the argument that Britain has used for decades and centuries that we can’t look after our own stuff is palpably false. Now that we have a state of the art museum that’s equal to any in the world, why doesn’t Britain return these things?’”

However, museums and their proponents have a different point of view.

“A museum’s purpose is to display and protect artifacts for the proliferation of knowledge and the enlightenment of humanity,” said McClellan. Their common goal, he says, is to give a complete picture of the broad sweep of human history and world art with the mission of educating their visitors. This makes them acquisitive.

The Salvage Paradigm is a tool of power, but also a real sentiment for the preservation of the world’s treasures. “It’s without question,” said McClellan, “that had the Parthenon marbles been left on the building for another hundred years, they would have deteriorated greatly, they would have been neglected certainly, and possibly destroyed.”

Had the British Museum not acquired them when they did, the marbles might not have survived at all.

***

So, where does Miroku fall into all this?

Okakura Kakuzo (1862-1913), a Japanese collector and curator at the MFA, purchased Miroku in 1906 from Kofuku-Ji temple in Nara for his private collection, explains Kaminishi. A year earlier he had purchased fourteen Buddhist images from Japanese sites for $7,500 on behalf of the MFA, she said. Okakura’s estate sold Miroku to the MFA in 1920, seven years after Okakura’s death, reports the MFA’s website.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Japanese Buddhist temples were selling statues left and right, explained Kaminishi. During the Meiji period (1868-1912), when the shogunate gave way to the imperial government, the Buddhism of the samurai was persecuted in favor of the Emperor’s Shinto. “Statues were burned, they were destroyed. They were taken apart, if it’s bronze, melted down,” said Kaminishi. “So, there was great danger of losing all of these.”

In the meantime, new state legislation restricted temples’ sources of revenue, explained Walser and Kaminishi. Temples were forced to sell their lands, and their artifacts, to stay afloat. Okakura and Earnest Fenollosa, a Harvard professor teaching ethics in Japan, surveyed temples for the most precious Buddhist treasures, saving all that they could.

An ocean away, the United States was on what McClellan refers to as “a vast shopping and hoarding spree” to catch up with European museums. “It was too late to march into countries and take their stuff,” said McClellan. “[The United States] would have played that game if it could have, but it couldn’t.” Instead, he said, U.S. museums were buying in large volume. Their enthusiasm caused them to overlook the legality of certain purchases.

The MFA bought heavily from Japan, says McClellan, though mostly through private, legal avenues, like Okakura. Presumably, when Okakura’s estate offered Miroku to the MFA, the museum was happy to buy and the estate was happy to see the statue preserved.

But, Buddhism is no longer violently persecuted in Japan. So, where does Miroku belong now?

It’s not so clear. Though the requirements for preserving a national treasure are rigorous, Kaminishi explains Kofuku-Ji is Japan’s largest Buddhist repository of national treasures. They could both care for Miroku and showcase the piece in its original context. On the other hand, she says, a museum exhibit in the MFA offers the chance for a wider audience. A Japanese museum could host Miroku, but Kaminishi, a Japanese citizen, has not felt any public support for the piece’s return.

For any piece in the MFA, or any museum, there is a history. Some works are stolen, acquired unethically, and belong rightfully to their home countries. Others are saved, purchased fairly, and shared. Many fall into impossible grey areas. What is clear, however, is that each piece must be evaluated in context, case by case.