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Tibet Uncovered: Missionaries and Mystics in the Early 20th Century

March 22, 2015
tibet: page in book

The Dana Library of Rutgers University, Newark, is pleased to announce that in conjunction with The Newark Museum’s Library and Archives an exhibition will be held from March 9th to June 26th, 2015 on the 4th floor of the Dana Library, on missionaries and mystics who traveled to Tibet in the early part of the twentieth century.  Entitled Tibet Uncovered, this exhibition will explore that intriguing country through the works of individuals who wanted to convert the Buddhists, and others who converted to Buddhism.  It will do so through the display of over 30 books and 30 images, as well as approximately 10 objects representing the everyday life and the ritual customs of the Tibetan people.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries witnessed an extremely active missionary movement in Africa and Asia.  Among the many Christians who travelled to the far corners of the earth were a small group that went to the borderlands of China and Tibet.  In the condescending words of one of them, “Tibet needs Christ,” and yet, despite this attitude, many of them returned home with a greater appreciation of the country and its culture, and they shared their experiences in words, images, and objects.  Dr. and Mrs. Albert L. Shelton were two of these missionaries, and their collection of objects became the core of the Newark Museum’s renowned Tibetan art collection.

Other Westerners went to Tibet to learn about Tibetan Buddhism. Some of them, like Alexandra David-Neel, converted and became proponents of it in Europe and America.  Others took parts of it and incorporated it in new understandings of spiritual life in the 20th century.  Tibetans themselves were part of this cross-cultural exchange.  Geshe Wangyal, for example, was an ethnic Kalmyk Mongolian, educated in Tibet, who fled the country in 1955 and settled in Freewood Acres, New Jersey, where he became the teacher of a remarkable group of American converts, who were instrumental in the establishment of Tibetan studies at several major universities.

Through books, images, and objects, the story of these missionaries and mystics is introduced to viewers, who will gain insight into the transmission of cultural ideas from West to East and from East to West, an interplay that has influenced – and continues to influence – Tibetans and Americans, as well as others in our global community.

An opening reception will be held at the Dana Library on Thursday, March 26th in the early evening from 6 pm to 8 pm.  A brief introduction to the exhibition will be made by Dr. William A. Peniston, the librarian and archivist at the Newark Museum, who will discuss the relationship between libraries and museums, specifically the role of specialized libraries in shaping exhibitions and programs.

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