At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the South Asian Galleries are pure artistic magnificence

It took two years and $2.7 million to restore and reimagine the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s South Asian Galleries, and the result is nothing short of spectacular.
The venerable Philadelphia Museum of Art is the third largest of its kind in the United States, and its South Asian Galleries contain rare pieces from India, Tibet, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia and Iran. While extremely popular, the galleries hadn’t been restored in 40 years, so their latest incarnation, unveiled in October, is of particular interest to art lovers.

“This, the first major reinstallation of our South Asian art in several decades, demonstrates that a collection like ours is, in effect, a renewable resource that, when presented in new ways, can always yield new meanings,” says Timothy Rub, the museum’s George D. Widener Director and Chief Executive Officer.

The museum upgrades include state-of-the-art lighting, flooring and casework designed to emphasis the importance of each object on display. While each gallery is self-contained, each is also part of a larger theme, allowing visitors to understand key aspects of South Asian culture.
Exhibition highlights include a 300-year-old coffered ceiling and vaulted archway, from a residence near the Iranian city of Isfahan, which serves as a setting to showcase the Rose Garden of Love manuscript from 1743. There’s also an elaborately carved and painted wood Tibetan altarpiece, as well as centuries-old sculptures of the Buddhist Lord of Compassion from India and Thailand.

But the South Asian Galleries’ most stunning attraction – and the centrepiece of the new space – is a dramatic recreation of a 16th century South Indian Temple Hall through which visitors can meander, admiring the sensual statues and refined carvings. While the Philadelphia Museum of Art started collecting South Asian art in 1876, it was the donation of the South Indian Temple Hall in 1919 that pushed the collection into the international limelight: the museum became the only place outside India where guests could view sculpture and architecture unique to that part of the world. In the ensuing years, the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection of South Asian pieces continued to grow, and the collection is now one of the most important and comprehensive outside South Asia.

Darielle Mason, the museum’s Stella Kramrisch Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art, explains that the South Asian Galleries’ renovation will be instrumental in introducing this distinctive art form to a whole new audience. “It has been exciting to re-imagine the galleries for a new generation of visitors,” she says. “Each of the works on display was originally created to communicate, whether to worshippers, kings, villagers or gods, and we hope that every visitor discovers something here that brings new meaning into her or his own life.”

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The One to Watch #40, page 88-91