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With its unique architecture, the Rubin Museum sits on W 17th St, near Union Square. Housed in what was once a department store, the museum opened in 2004, initially to share the private collection of Donald and Shelby Rubin, who had been collecting Himalayan art since the 1970s. The couple had an interest in Himalayan art and wanted to display their collection to the public. The architectural firm Beyer Blinder Belle organized the space vertically, with each of the 6 floors acting as separate rooms for different exhibitions. The entrance leads into an open space with warm wood walls and dim lighting, a classic example of mid-century modern design. The cafe on the main floor plays meditative music, giving the whole space a very spiritual and mysterious vibe. To the right, a large statue of Ganesha is littered with monetary offerings from visitors. The centerpiece of the space is the large spiral marble staircase that leads floors to all 6 floors.

The Rubin's current exhibition, Death is not the End, is located on the top floor and highlights depictions of the afterlife in Buddhism and Christianity. The interactive exhibit pairs certain works from each faith together, in hopes of drawing conversation about religion and reality. The exhibit begins with a clothesline of hanging cards. The cards have different prompts like “What is death?” and are answered by the visitors. Another space holds a zen garden to engage the audience. The exhibit has an interesting layout as it is not in a large open room but has an ambulatory walkway of sorts, encouraging the visitor to go around in circles as the center of the room is covered in this white mesh. The atmosphere of the room is very relaxing and spiritual, a continuation of the mysteriousness from downstairs.

The other floors of the building showcase different exhibits and ideas of the Rubin museum. The fifth floor displays the Gateway to Himalayan Art exhibit which features sculptures and the Tibetan Lukhang Temple murals, which are the collection’s focal point.

The fourth floor presents Buddhism to visitors through a full re-creation of a Tibetan Buddhist Shrine. I found it particularly interesting as it is very richly decorated compared to the minimalist aesthetic of the rest of the museum. Because this is a re-creation of an existing religious space, more of the cultural practices of architecture are visible. The physical space that a religion is presented in deeply impacts the connection one feels. To separate a religion from its place of worship or cultural contexts can reduce the significance of its message. The fact that this is the only space in the Rubin Museum that depicts an accurate representation of Buddhist religion and its physical architecture highlights how the minimalistic aesthetic used in the other spaces reduces the richness of experience and caters to a Western, less nuanced perspective of ‘Buddhist Spirituality.’

The entire focus of the museum revolves around creating personal connections to Himalayan art and culture including ideas of spirituality. For example, the Mandala Lab allows visitors to hit on large gongs and combines Western therapy practices with these religious and cultural acts. The tone of the museum is summarized in their promotional ‘welcoming” video*, which focuses on “feeling a peaceful moment when you’re meditating,” but hardly mentions details of the objects or even the aesthetics of the art displayed.

The exhibit design, subject matter, and even marketing highlight the larger conversation around who the audience is for this museum. The overwhelming focus on an individual visitor’s experience of spirituality without clearly explaining cultural context is an interesting and selective representation of the Himalayas and Tibet. Has this museum transcended as a space for exhibiting art to a religious space? Would South Asian visitors feel familiar or welcomed in this space, especially if they were practicing Buddhism? The Rubin Museum’s lack of boundaries between art and religion raise the question of whether this is an art museum or intended as a place of worship, possibly even designed to bring people into the spiritual practice.


Editor’s Note: The Rubin Museum recently announced that it is undergoing significant transformation in the way it is presenting its collection. You can learn more on their website,


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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