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Originating from the famous Rockefeller family collection, The Asia Society museum has a vast and influential collection. Located in midtown Manhattan, on the famous 'Museum Mile', close to other museums, including the Met and Guggenheim, the entrance features a bright open space, featuring a few artworks and also opening into a beautiful sunroom. In the lobby, a large Ganesha statue holds an in-built donation box, acknowledging the religious practices associated with this object. Upon asking the receptionist, the donations are kept by the museum but any other details are unclear. Currently the permanent collection is not on display, however their new exhibition focuses on South Asian Art and is titled Buddha, Sage of the Shakya Clan: Masterworks from the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection.

On the second floor of the building lies the current exhibit. Relatively small, the exhibit includes around 20 artworks depicting Buddha from India and Pakistan as well as other Asian countries like Myanmar, Thailand, and Korea. The olive green walls and dim lighting are accompanied by large swaths of text to inform the visitor. The first piece is a large Gandhara statue of Buddha's head, a very respected style by critics due to its Hellenistic influence. The provenance briefly mentions the Rockefeller family, and the large informational text educates the audience on the subject matter by explaining aesthetic details and including relevant historical and geographical context. The main appeal of this exhibit is a large display on the wall which highlights the 8 stages of Buddha's life. These include pictures from pictures from manuscripts, menu scripts, and are accompanied by myths and other stories from various Buddhist texts. The inclusion of mythology and Indian storytelling is uncommon in Western depictions of Buddhism, as it can detract from the 'mysteriousness' and 'quietness' usually associated with the religion. In America, Buddhism has an aesthetic of minimalism or simplicity, far from the loud and bright India that birthed it. This alienation between spirituality and myth or culture has created a narrative of Buddhism that can be easily digested by the West. This exhibit defies the norm by showcasing these aspects of Buddhism in a way that feels genuine and respectful of the cultural heritage of the religion without demeaning its spirituality. The curation shows the extent of research done as all the objects are paired with these stages of Buddha and invite the viewer to thoughtfully engage with this ancient yet alive religion. To further the education of the audience, the final part of the exhibit even features two copies of "India, a History in Objects" by T. Richard Blurton, allowing anyone to sit and read more if desired.

Unfortunately, the beauty of the curated exhibit feels dampened by another aspect of the museum: the gift shop. Although the concept of a gift shop is highly contested among critics, since museums consider themselves educational and not commercial, they have become commonplace across most museums. They usually hold various merchandise like mugs or tote bags decorated with museum logos, or images of artwork from either the permanent collection or even a temporary exhibit. Instead, the Asia Society Museum has chosen to sell cultural goods, like a bazaar of sorts. They sell Indian metalwork bowls, pieces of driftwood, and even figurines of Buddha heads. While perusing, I saw a customer trying on a Japanese scarf accompanied by a saleswoman. It felt more like the international section of a department store than a museum, with lower quality yet highly marked up imported goods.

The choice to create such a commercial space begs to ask who the audience of this museum truly is. Although their exhibition shows a genuine attempt to represent the cultures they show, while educating the unfamiliar, the gift shop feels like an exploitation of cultural items catered to a wealthy upper class, most likely White, visitor. This disconnect between the curatorial work and the gift shop highlights how difficult it is to create change in these large institutions and cause a larger impact. The effort put into the curation is clear, creating a thoughtful and informative exhibition but it is overshadowed by the longer administrative battle as we continue to decolonize and redefine these spaces for our community.


Insiya Motiwala studies Art History and Interactive Media at New York University. Her academic research focuses on property and labor in art, including collectivist craft based artwork, and museum administration. Her first hand experience of the textile industry during her childhood in Karachi, Pakistan has created a long standing interest in fiber arts as well.

Insiya studies art history and specializes in museum administration and art as property. This is reflected in her reviews as she highlights questions of management including the goal of a museum as well the role of the audience. Her work covers art spaces in NYC consisting of the many popular museums as well as smaller galleries. As a Pakistani immigrant, Insiya’s personal experience of South Asian art is through decorative folk art, textiles and other mediums that are not traditionally considered “high art.” She visited and reviewed a total of five institutions throughout the summer; Aicon Gallery, Rubin Museum, Met Museum, Asia Society Museum and Brooklyn Museum.

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