Huffpost Religion
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Deepak Sarma Headshot

Hindu Art or Hindu Artifact? Museums and (Objectifying?) Hindu Objects

Posted: Updated:

Another good question concerns the treatment, handling, and contextualization of Hindu objects in museums. Should they be there? Should they be "repatriated" if they were obtained illegally? Are they art? In whose eyes are they considered art? Or are they artifacts?

In recent times, questions have been raised about the propriety of appropriating and displaying items that have been obtained by unacceptable or criminal means. In the Hindu context one may wonder if any sculpture that was once part of a Hindu temple should be on display in an art museum. While some may argue that a particular piece has been decommissioned, and, therefore, it was legitimately obtained and would not seem to be sacred to Hindus, one may wonder whether its withdrawal was interrupted and that it should have been destroyed, or at least kept out the public eye. Is it defensible, for example, to display mummies and other Egyptian funerary components? Should, then, a decommissioned/ desacralized statue (murthi) that has been buried and "discovered" be put on display? Should Hindu museum patrons treat it with reverence? Should museums request non-Hindu patrons to comport themselves in a manner that Hindu adherents would deem respectful? And, if the museum stipulated this, then is the museum promoting Hinduism? How secular is a museum if it bends to the requests of the local Hindu community?

Would a museum be required to treat all artifacts in the same way, if they were revered at one time? Would museums displaying Islamic artifacts, for example, require patrons to remove garments made from pig leather?

These good questions aside, one must still decide if the item is a merely an artifact or is art. A murthi that at one time resided in a temple, for example, that was installed in a recessed wall niche, that was worshipped daily, that was a component in Hindu practice, was never displayed by itself independently of its context. It was, never ostracized or isolated like this, and certainly never encased in a Plexiglas cabinet in the middle of the room. It was never the object of reflection or aesthetic prowess. How is it to be understood by museum patrons when taken out of its original (or intended) context? Is it reasonable to call it "art." And if not, then is it devalued when it is identified as a mere artifact?

And, who would speak for the Hindu community on behalf of the Hindu art/ artifacts?

These are just a few of the sort of questions that would arise should Hindus, Hindu museum patrons, and non-Hindu museum patrons ought to ask about the Hindu and other religious objects they view in museums.

What do you think?