Thursday, October 27, 2016

Hero, heroine, ally, foe: Ramayana exhibit in the Asian Art Museum

I did not know until I showed up at the doors that the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco is having a temporary exhibit on the Rama Epic. Being in town for Epic Day, I visited two days before opening, and therefore was limited to staring through the doors with longing, like orphans in a Dickens novel. Since the exhibit would be closed by the next Epic Day, I shifted some of my schedule around, and took the BART back to the city on Friday, to catch it on the opening day. After all, it would have been ridiculous to fly all the way to San Francisco for epics, and then miss a museum exhibit about an epic.

Holy crap, was it worth it.

It is hard to put a story - any story - on display in a museum setting. It is even harder to do so with one of the most complex, multi-layered, culturally influential tales humanity has ever told. Presenting the Rama epic in a fashion that showcases it in its beautiful complexity, and makes it accessible to Western audiences at the same time, is a true feat of curating - and something that the Asian Art Museum pulled off with seamless elegance.

Full disclosure: As a trained archaeologist, I am very fussy about signs. They usually lack information that I'd like to know, or provide generic descriptions of items that have all kinds of interesting details. When I took Museum Studies courses, they told us that the average visitor spends 2-3 seconds on an object; cramming written information into that time frame is near impossible. And yet, the Rama Epic exhibition achieved the impossible with care and eloquence. The signs accompanying the objects and displays were concise, well written, and yet they told parts of the story in interesting ways, pointing out small details and explaining things the viewer was likely to ask (such as "Who is that guy in the upper left corner of the painting?").
Displays followed the story in chronological order for the first part of the exhibit. Pictures and other artwork related to certain scenes and narrative highlights were grouped together, so that visitors could walk though the epic and see how different cultures and eras depicted the same scenes differently. In addition, there were several video screens placed throughout the exhibit that played short clips on a loop - scenes from various iterations of the Ramayana (such as a 2008 movie, a 1980's TV show, and stage performances from various places in South and East Asia). Instead of trying to tell the whole story at the beginning, or in one handy pamphlet, the creators of the exhibit spread information out to several signs, and then provided an easy-to-follow outline for the major events and characters of the epic:
The second half of the exhibit introduced four of the main characters (Rama, Sita, Ravana, and Hanumna) in all their various forms and appearances, through sculptures, paintings, masks, puppets, and all sorts of amazing objects in vivid colors. We also learned more about scenes where they take a leading role, and how they fit into the larger cultural context of the epic.
My storytelling mentor, Cathryn, a storyteller friend, Margaret, and I spent almost four hours in the exhibit, completely enchanted. Cathryn has told the Ramayana before for Epic Day (I am sad I did not get to participate in that one, it was before I joined Epic Day), and I have read it multiple times (and told parts of the Ramakien for MythOff). We discussed our favorite scenes at length, marveling at small details; it seemed that our love and enthusiasm for the amazing world of the Ramayana was shared by the creators of the exhibition.
(Also, did I mention that the exhibit is accompanied by actual live storytelling events? How cool is that?!)

TL;DR: The Rama Epic: Hero, heroine, ally, foe is hands down one of the best executed, most amazing museum exhibits I have ever seen. If you can get there, make sure you see it!

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