Smithsonian has hand in Indian science exhibit planned by Tibetan monks

The Washington Post

December 17, 2010


NEW DELHI – The northern Indian town of Bir was greeted with an unusual sight when Scott Schmidt carried six-foot-long plywood sheets on his head through the streets. Schmidt, who develops exhibits for the Smithsonian, had retrieved the wood from the village carpenter and toted it on his head to the Buddhist institute he was visiting. “I got impatient,” said Schmidt. “I probably broke every rule of how a Westerner is supposed to act in a village in India.”

Schmidt was helping a group of 30 Tibetan monks plan “The World of Your Senses,” a bilingual science exhibition displayed last month in New Delhi at the India Habitat Center, an arts and culture venue in India’s capital.

The wood was used to build a prototype of the display panels. Schmidt’s effort – and sore head – were worth it. The exhibit showcasing Western and Buddhist perspectives of the five senses was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama and viewed by hundreds of visitors over five days. Plans are underway for the exhibit to tour in India next year and possibly at a Smithsonian museum in the United States.

The exhibit was the latest effort in a 10-year-old initiative to teach science to Tibetan monastics, started at the behest of the Dalai Lama. In 2001, the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama’s exile home in India, and the U.S.-based Sager Family Foundation began bringing Western scientists and educators to India to teach science to Tibetan monks. India is home to about 120,000 Tibetans – the largest population outside of Tibet.

After a decade of instruction and workshops in the Science for Monks program, an exhibit was the next step in the monks’ dialogue with science, says Lhakdor, director of the LTWA. (Like many Tibetans, he goes by one name.)

While the Smithsonian works with various communities to tell their stories, “The World of Your Senses” was a more hands-on project that immersed Smithsonian staff in a culture far from the museums of Washington. The exhibit’s cross-cultural, interdisciplinary combination of science, philosophy and art – the panels were painted by a Tibetan thangka painter – also made it unique.

Tibet’s spiritual leader, known for tinkering with watches and engines as a boy, has long been fond of science. The Dalai Lama considers science and Buddhism as complementary “investigative approaches with the same greater goal, of seeking the truth.” Modern education is critical to the survival of Tibetan culture and identity for the Dalai Lama.

Tibetan children in India learn science in school, but Tibetan monks and nuns have followed a traditional curriculum largely unchanged for centuries. Until a decade ago, Tibetan monks had learned no science at all. Since then it’s been a crash course in science for some monks, with classes on topics ranging from cosmology to neuroscience.

As part of the Science for Monks program, a select group of geshes (monks who are the equivalent of PhDs) from monasteries across India attend biannual workshops taught by scientists and educators from the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Arizona, the Exploratorium in San Francisco and, most recently, the Smithsonian. The program is funded by Boston philanthropist Bobby Sager.

At the exhibit in New Delhi, Indians, Tibetans and overseas visitors perused seven-foot-tall panels depicting colorful images of anatomy alongside dancing Buddhist deities, all painted by a master Tibetan thangka painter. Red-robed monks explained to visitors in English and Tibetan the nuances of how sound waves vibrate in the inner ear, as well as abstract Buddhist concepts for how sensation is perceived.

Ultimately, the exhibit looked polished, but it was a frantic rush to put together in six months what would normally take a year by professional standards. A team from the Smithsonian traveled from Washington to India for two-week stints from December 2009 through last month to help the monks conceive, develop, execute and stage the exhibit.

Stephanie Norby, director of the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies, helped the monks launch a science fair in June 2009 that was a precursor to last month’s formal exhibit. “We gave a broad overview of what might be done but were sensitive that the monks do it on their own. We wanted it to be their exhibit,” said Norby.

The interdisciplinary nature of the exhibit was amplified when the monks decided that the panels should be painted like thangkas. Thangkas are a traditional Tibetan style of religious paintings that typically depict ornate Buddhas and deities, not human anatomy. Visitors to the exhibit saw the striking sight of a gigantic brain painted with fluid brush strokes resembling water, and blood vessels behind an eyeball reminiscent of delicate tree roots.

“I’ve been working on bringing science to monks for the last 10 years, and this is the first thing I’ve worked on that had such an aesthetic quality,” said Bryce Johnson, director of the Science for Monks program. “To see the beauty at the intersection of science and Buddhism – that was a really unique experience.”

Schmidt, an exhibits fabricator at the Smithsonian’s Office of Exhibits Central, took two trips to India this year, in May and November. After his visit in May, the monks’ sketches and draft text were sent to Tracie Spinale, program manager at the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies, and media designer Darren Milligan in Washington. They were charged with creating a Smithsonian-quality visual framework to explain the Buddhist and Western perspectives of the senses.

It is no easy task to distill explanations about photons, bony ossicles and microvilli into a few paragraphs of English and Tibetan text. But articulating complex metaphysical Buddhist concepts was even more difficult. The Buddhist explanation for sight, for instance, relies on the “objective condition, dominant condition and immediately preceding condition.” According to Tibetan Buddhist texts, there are six categories of tastes “due to the dominance of two of the four elements: earth, water, fire and wind.”

While the Western images were based largely on pictures from standard science textbooks, the Buddhist senses had never been explained in a mainstream, pictorial way. “We had to design visual representations for concepts that did not currently exist,” said Spinale.

The Smithsonian team researched thangkas and visited Buddhist art collections at the Sackler Gallery and the Rubin Museum of Art in New York. Yet they were still looking for ways to convey the Buddhist perspectives in an accessible way. They eventually came across pictures in Buddhist medical texts that inspired the look of the panels.

“We tested the graphic concepts on a range of people, from a neuroscientist, to science educators, to exhibit designers, to my first-grade daughter,” said Spinale. “If she didn’t understand what one of the graphics represented, then it wasn’t used.”

The final graphics were adapted to the subject matter in innovative ways. For instance, a typical Buddhist image of a hand mirror morphed into a five-armed mirror to depict the “five concomitant factors” that are part of the Buddhist perspective on sight.

Thangka painter Jampa Choedak took a reassignment from his regular duties at the LTWA to paint the panels. Choedak, 36, has been painting thangkas for 23 years, and had never studied science. Painting large images of the inner ear, cells and other anatomy surprised him with “how delicate the human body is.”

The Smithsonian team worked on the science exhibit on top of their regular work and during off-hours. Yet all of them waxed enthusiastically about the experience of working with the monks and science program staff to create the exhibit.

“Helping people to learn and then to share what they have learned is exactly what the Smithsonian is about,” said Milligan.

Yee is a freelance writer based in India.

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