How do you display a sacred, 22-foot tall, 16-foot wide scroll commissioned by a revered religious leader 300 years ago? Very carefully, say the people at Norton Simon Museum. They just finished installing a sacred Buddhist scroll known as a thangkha, commissioned by the 8th Dalai Lama, for a new show opening this Friday.
It’s only one of a handful of times that this relic has been displayed, and only the second time at the museum since Norton Simon himself acquired the piece in 1975. (LACMA wanted to buy it back then, too, but didn’t have the budget.)
It’s in such pristine condition you won’t believe it’s 300 years old. But the best part is the power this piece packs: Believers feel just by looking at it, you’re soaking up merit that will enhance your karma.
I talked to the curator of the new exhibition, Melody Rod-ari, about In the Land of Snow: Buddhist Art of the Himalayas. “It has a really interesting history,” she told me. After making its way out of Tibet during the turmoil there in 1959 and into the hands of the former King of Sikkim, it was gifted to a pioneering and adventurist American artist and mountain climber named Elaine Hamilton. The industrialist Simon purchased it from her for $75,000 almost 40 years ago.
“Norton was collecting this art before most people were,” Rod-ari told me. Not because he was a Buddhist, but because, “It was really good business sense, in part, but also he had great teachers, I guess you could say, who were guiding him.” Simon’s wife, the Academy award-winning actress Jennifer Jones, may have been an influence as well.
The logistics of showcasing a piece which is normally unfurled only on special occasions was a particular challenge for the museum. Its ceilings couldn’t accommodate it, so museum staff created a ramp, that allows the viewer to circle the work and get a good look at its appliqué detail.
In the Land of Snow: Buddhist Art of the Himalayas opens Friday March 28th through August. Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena.