Taoist mythology, Lanna history, mythology, the nature of time and other considered ramblings

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Location: Chiangrai, Chiangrai, Thailand

Author of many self-published books, including several about Thailand and Chiang Rai, Joel Barlow lived in Bangkok 1964-65, attending 6th grade with the International School of Bangkok's only Thai teacher. He first visited ChiangRai in 1988, and moved there in 1998.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Xuan-tsang bridges the China-India gap

San-tsang, or Hsüan-tsang, a.k.a. Xuanzang and Tripitaka (602-664; pronounced Shwan-dzang; name, Chen Hui)- the ‘Tang Tripitaka’ monk named for Buddhist scriptures, who traveled over 15,000 miles through about half of the Buddhist areas, to help clarify Buddhist teachings. His story entered Chinese folk and literary tradition as Xiyouji (Hsi-yu chi, Journey to the West). This foremost Chinese comic novel (by Wu Cheng’en) eventually spawned movies, comic books and TV serials in a wide variety of languages, forms loved by hundreds of millions (at least).
Xuan-tsang (Chen Hui), the youngest of four children in a scholarly family for generations noted for achievements and erudition, eventually became one of the world’s most important translators. His grandfather served as head of Beijing’s Imperial University until the Sui Dynasty collapsed in 618. With an older brother, at age 13 Xuanzang requested to take Buddhist orders and become a monk, after fleeing to Chang’an and then on southward to Chengdu, in Sichuan. The abbot of Kong Hui Monestary, Zeng Shanguo, accepted them due to Zuan-tsang’s precocious knowledge – and by 626 he was studying Sanskrit, and perhaps also Tocharian (likely the language from which that of the Huns, who’d sacked Rome 150 years earlier, and now threatened China, derived).
Monotheism helped unite tribal groups previously separated by language, attitude and cultural happenstance, and the mono-theme that first united people across societal boundaries was Buddhism. It spread from north India, and by the middle of the 3rd century BCE, extended from the Himalayas to Sri Lanka (Buddhist King Asoka then ruled the greater part of the subcontinent), and was entering Central Asia and China. It went rapidly on to Persia, Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia, at a time when the major centers of population and culture were in those places (adherents of a Greco-Roman cultural dominance or ‘supremacy’ notwithstanding). But with this spread came re-interpretations, and confusions like those which bothered Xuanxang.
Mahayana teachings were first promulgated in China during the 2nd century CE by Lokaksema, the first translator of Mahayana sutras into Chinese. An ethnic Yuezhi from Gandahara in Kushan (a huge mountainous area including northern parts of the Indian subcontinent from Benares and what’s now the western tip of Bengal, west to present Pakistan, north to Bactria and Ferghana, then east to Turfan, excluding the high Himalayas), Lokaksema spoke a Tocharian language at a time when Buddhism was actively sponsored by the Kushan Emperor Kanishka (who convened the Fourth Buddhist Council, the proceedings of which oversaw a formal split between Nikaya and Mahayana Buddhism). Around 152CE, Kushan captured territories as far as modern-day Xinjiang, China; subsequently, security offered by the Kushans helped in the spread of Mahayana Buddhism into China. Emperor Kanishka opened the way for missionary activities in China by monks like Lokaksema, who worked at the court of the Han Dynasty between 178 and 189. Many early translations of Mahayana texts are attributed to him.
Faxian (Fa-Hien, Fa-hsien, Fa Xian, 337 – 424 CE), a Chinese Buddhist monk, travelled the opposite way, walking from China to India, visiting sacred Buddhist sites in what are now Xinjiang, Pakistan, Nepal and lastly Sri Lanka - to acquire Buddhist scriptures. This is described in his travelogue, A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms, Being an Account by the Chinese Monk Fa-Xian of his Travels in India and Ceylon in Search of the Buddhist Books of Discipline. After he stayed two years in Ceylon, a storm drove his ship onto an island (perhaps Java); after five months there, Faxian took another ship which was also blown off course - to Laoshan in what is now the Shandong peninsula in northern China. Afterwards, he spent his life translating and editing the scriptures he’d collected.
At about this same time, Kumarajiva, born to a noble Kashmiri Brahmin family with connections to many places between India and China, was also facilitating transmission of Buddhist thought. His mother was from Kucha (an ancient Buddhist kingdom, the largest of the “Thirty-six kingdoms of the Western Regions,” and most populous oasis in the Tarim Basin on a branch of the Silk Road at the northern edge of the Taklamakan Desert). After studying in Kashgar and Turpan, Kumarajiva traveled further to study Mahayana texts, and gained fame. Chinese Emperor Fu Jian, deciding he wanted Kumarajiva in his Qin capital of Chang’an, ordered his general Lu Guang to conquer Kucha, and return with Kumarajiva. But the main army was defeated, so Lu Guang declared his own state, and had Kumarajiva (then around 40 years old) captured. Lu Guang, a non-Buddhist, kept Kumarajiva imprisoned for years, as booty, during which time Kumarajiva became quite familiar with Chinese language.
Emperor Yao Xing overthrew Emperor Fu Jian, and made repeated pleas to warlords of the Lu family to free Kumarajiva (or rather, send him to Chang’an). They wouldn’t, so Yao Xing dispatched armies, defeated the Lu family, and had Kumarajiva brought east to Chang’an (401 CE). Kumarajiva was introduced to Emperor Yao Xing, his court and its Buddhist leaders, hailed as a great master from the Western regions, and given the title of National Teacher. He was now Emperor Yao Xing’s teacher. Many came to learn from him, or through his translations. His translation style was distinctive, with a flowing smoothness resultant from his priority of conveying the meaning as opposed to precise literal correctness. Because of this, his renderings of seminal Mahayana texts are often more popular than later, more literal translations, including those of Xuanzang.
Siddhatta Gotama (Gautama Buddha) may not have been born in southern Nepal, as is claimed, but rather in the southeast Persian area colloquially known as India, home to his warrior caste. Regardless, he produced a vision of the human condition asserting that all people, whatever their language, beliefs, occupations or ethnicity, share the same spiritual state and potential. A distinct historical first, his teachings spread along both land and maritime trade routes, gaining favor with rulers working to unite disparate peoples under their power. Buddhism helped bind people whose previous loyalties were ethnic and linguistic, thus helping strengthen fragile alliances and to spread trade.
But, a millennium after Buddha lived, discrepancies and contradictions in available religious texts troubled Zuangzang. Getting no solution from his masters, he traveled overland to India to study, despite being denied a travel permit. He left by stealth in 629, and traveled along what’s now known as the Silk Road. A king on the southern rim of the Gobi Desert, Qu-wentai, honored Xuanzang and demanded he stay as his teacher. Xuanzang declared with an oath that he would eat nothing until allowed to leave. After three days, overcome with shame and sorrow, Qu-wentai bowed before Xuanzang, releasing “the Master of Law” to “go to the West.” The personal non-violent resistance succeeded so well that Zuanzang left with new clothes, gold, silver, rolls of silk and servants – all he’d need, the king thought, for 20 years.
After traveling by caravan north of the Taklamakan Desert, through Kirghizstan, Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, the Hindu Kush and Kashmir (with at least a dozen of his company perishing) in 633 he arrived at Nalanda Monastery, a Buddhist centre of learning in northwest India. He studied Buddhist philosophy and Indian thought there, and his reputation as a scholar became so great that a powerful king of North India, Harsha, met and honored him. This greatly facilitated Xuanzang’s return trip to China (643 – 645). When Xuanzang departed, Harsha provided a military escort to carry the books and images, and even his best and biggest elephant - capable of carrying eight men as well as the thousands of gold and silver pieces given him for expenses along the way. Harsha also provided letters to rulers on the homeward route. On the other side of the Pamirs, Xuanzang’s caravan was attacked by robbers in a narrow defile; the elephant fell into the river and drowned.
After 16 years returned to Chang’an, Xuanzang was given a tumultuous welcome home. Cosmopolitan Chang’an, then the world’s largest city. With 2 million inhabitants, it presided over the largest empire the world had yet seen; Sogdians, Turks, Persian, Indians, Arabs, and others of Central Asia crowded into its Great Western Market where many of those foreigners sold exotic goods. A few days after he returned, Xuanzang was received by the Emperor, who, enthralled by his accounts, offered ministerial post. Xuanzang respectfully declined, and spent the remainder of his life translating scriptures (he’d brought from India 657 items packed in 520 cases). He translated only a small portion (about 75, in 1,335 chapters), but these included some of the most important Mahayana scriptures.
Only a few years after his return, Xuanzang witnessed the grand gathering of the Western Turks near Lake Issik Kul, the Great Khan of the Western Turks was assassinated, bringing about the breakdown of the once powerful Western Turkish Empire. As the Turkish empires weakened or were destroyed, the Tang emperor Taizong began establishing suzerainty over oases kingdoms of the Taklamakan desert. And in India, only 4 years after his Great Debate before the mighty King Harsha, Harsha died; with his death, the whole of north India descended into chaos and Buddhism declined sharply. Yet there were over 50 diplomatic missions between China and India in the century after Xuanzang’s pilgrimage, as both countries wanted to keep the rising power of Tibet (not yet Buddhist) in check, and foster trade, especially in silk, grains, cane sugar, livestock, iron and glassware. Frequent diplomatic contact continued for over 400 years.
In the years when Xuanzang had just returned to China, and Emperor Taizong was consolidating power in the East, while the first three successors of the Prophet Muhammad overran Syria, Iran, Palestine, Egypt and the Persian empire. India lay at first beyond the wave of 7th century Islamic conquests. Then Sind, the lower half of the Indus valley, was taken by Arab forces for a trade base. Major Islamic advances came three centuries later, after a period of much disorder and famine in northern India.

Best known for translating sacred scriptures of Buddhism from Sanskrit into Chinese and founding the ‘Buddhist Consciousness Only’ school, the volume and diversity of Xuanzang’s translations of the Buddhist sutras and his recounting of travels in Central Asia and India, with their wealth of detailed and precise data, have been of inestimable value to historians and archaeologists. It’s not well known, but Xuanzang also translated the Dao de jing (Tao-te Ching) of Laozi (Lao-tzu) into Sanskrit and sent it to India, in 647 – illustrating that it was the sharing of ideas he was interested in, more than dogma.
The main thesis taught at Xuanzang’s school was that our world is but a representation of the mind. Xuangzang, best known as Tripitaka, the naïve monk protected by the Monkey-god amalgamation of Hanuman and some Taoist legends, as told by Wu Ch’eng-en (~1500 – 1582), novelist and poet of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), and translated by Arthur Waley (Monkey, 1942), remains popular. TV shows of him, particularly offer comedy, adventure and mythology. In at least one of the shows, to eat the meat of the traveling monk is believed to endow immortality, and so the skills of his monkey-god traveling companion are repeatedly challenged. Among Chinese he’s enjoyed most for biting satires of society and bureaucracy, and allegorical illustrations of human striving and perseverance.

Monday, December 03, 2012

The History of Museums

From my novel "New Connection" (updated December 2012):

Museums, built to preserve, research, communicate and exhibit collections for the study, education and enjoyment of the general public, provide amusement, information and context. Modern European and North American museums developed along with 18th century classification systems (i.e. Linnaeus). But their concept, at least in general, goes back 40,000 years. In European cave sites archaeologists have found caches of minerals resembling animals and human heads – collections representing, and exhibiting, categories.
The earliest museums resembled today’s libraries, and were established to provide sources for inspiration and edification. At his capital city, Tall alAmarinah, Pharoah Akenaton (ruled ~ 1353 to 1335 BCE) erected a large library for gifts from allied rulers and subject peoples. In the decades just before the great Persian Conquest, museums of antiquities sprang up around Mesopotamia, with exhibits labeled to enhance the awareness of a public already profoundly respectful of antiquity. At a temple complex in Mesopotamia’s ancient city of Ur, dated to about 560 BCE, the E-Dublal-Mah temple contained a school with Sumerian antiquities from the 3rd millennium (2.900 – 2.000 BCE).
In ancient Greece, art objects were considered public wealth, to be seen and enjoyed not just by scholars but by all. Temples displayed statues, paintings and votive offerings. In the 5th century BCE, the Prophylae, a hall in a building the Acropolis of Athens, showed a collection of paintings. The Greeks filled many temples with both sculpture and scholars; this tradition was copied in many kingly treasure houses which followed. Spoils of war were displayed in palaces, and in the cages of royal zoos.
But the Greek term mouseion (“seat of the Muses”, designating a place of philosophical contemplation) was first applied to a state-supported research institute in Alexandria, Egypt. Founded for the fostering of scientific studies by Ptolemy I Soter (a Macedonian general of Alexander’s) early in the 3rd century BCE, the Museum of Alexandria, as it is now known, was a state-run institution dedicated to the muses (including history, music and astronomy), and to learning. It attracted the finest scholars in science, philosophy, literature, and art; it had apartments, a dining hall, lecture hall, cloister, botanical garden, zoological park and an astronomical observatory. Surgical and astronomical instruments, animal parts, statues, and portrait busts were kept there and used for teaching. The famous library of Alexandria, with its huge collection of manuscripts from the Greek world, was but a part of it. There are many (perhaps apocryphal) stories of its destruction, but that much was destroyed about 270 CE, during civil disturbances, is clear.
As Alexander’s empire crumbled, motivations for acquiring objects of art and history changed: fascination with ancient Greek civilization built desire for its art; many neglected or abandoned cities and shrines were looted. Romans began displaying Greek paintings and sculptures in the private homes, then in public places. When the Roman Empire fell, the Vandals, the Goths, and others looted ancient treasures. The rise of monotheism didn’t help matters, as Belief became seen as more important than knowledge.
Still, in the Middle Age Europe, as elsewhere, religion was a focal point for collecting. Cathedrals, churches, and monasteries were repositories for religious relics, jewels, precious metals, rare manuscripts, and special fabrics. Spoils from the Crusades added to collections.
In the Islamic world and Asia collecting followed similar patterns. Before 1000 CE, royal collections of art objects were preserved in palaces and temples of China and Japan. Of particular note is the still functioning Shōsōin (Shōsō House) at Tōdai-ji (Tōdai Temple) in the city of Nara, Japan, housing several thousand works of art and religious artifacts. Created in the 8th century, it may be the oldest museum in the world.

Many famous European museums trace their origins to rich private collections from the Renaissance. After the Black Death (the plague of 1347-51), Europe was hemmed in by Islamic territory: travel in any direction far enough and one was in hostile country. But it had become more aware of trade and its benefits (while its dangers remain, even now, but poorly perceived). A drastic reduction of the amount of land under cultivation due to the deaths of so many led to a general rise in labor wages, and a new fluidity, lessening the hitherto rigid stratification of society. China was no longer little more than myth; monotheism no longer seemed able to create a Christian hegemony; and knowledge, instead of Belief, again attained significant standing and importance in society.
During the 14th century in Italy, long-haul commerce (shipping) created a new class of wealthy merchants; many amassed large collections of sculpture, paintings and arts of antiquity. Nobles and dignitaries of the church also began to collect on a large scale. In Rome the initiative in founding collections was taken up by Popes (Paul II, Julius II, Leo X, Clement VII, Pius V, Sixtus V, and Clement XIV). In Florence, the wealthy and powerful Medici family assembled an unrivaled collection of antique Roman and contemporary Italian sculptures, manuscripts, tapestries, paintings, bronzes and gems, as well as scientific and technological objects. The Medicis displayed large pictures of mythological and religious subjects in a long narrow corridor called a galleria. By the 16th century’s end, a galleria was found in all residences of Italian princes.
In wealthy households, small art objects or nature collections were often arranged in a cabinet (Italian gabinetto; German Kabinett). Originally the term ‘cabinet of curiosities’ referred to a piece of furniture where small valuables were stored for safekeeping. The term later came to designate a small room or small private museum where such things were kept, and was sometimes changed to “Learned Cabinets”. These gradually entered the public realm, developed increasingly specialized elements, and became the core of collections for research and teaching at institutions of higher education, and noted as forerunners of today’s museums. Although arrangements were often haphazard, they were the first efforts to chronicle a full spectrum of human achievement, and of the natural world.
English collecting too began with curiosities. Charles I (reigned 1625 to 1649), as Prince of Wales visited Spain (1623) and, impressed by collections of Philip IV he saw there, as King purchased several fine art collections and sought antiquities. He sent emissaries off with instructions to “transplant Old Greece in England.” During the English Civil War (1642 to 1649) Parliament sold the royal collections; interest in the arts languished under Oliver Cromwell (head of the government from 1653 to 1658).Charles II (reigned 1660 to 1685) rebuilt the royal collection, but more than 700 masterpieces were destroyed by fire at Whitehall Palace, in 1698.
French royal collections were begun in earnest during the reign of Francis I (1515–1547). Francis’s son Henry II, (reigned 1547 to 1559) married Catherine de Medici, Florentine daughter of Prince Lorenzo, who brought much Italian Renaissance art to France. Royal collections were housed in the palace at Fontainebleau, open only to members of the court. These collections were greatly enlarged by Louis XIII (reigned 1610–1643) and Louis XIV the Sun King (reigned 1643–1715), and by their ministers, Cardinal Richelieu, Cardinal Mazarin, and Jean-Baptiste Colbert. Louis XIV acquired over 1,500 paintings by French, Italian and Flemish Old Masters, thousands of drawings, and a fine collection of ancient Greek marbles and bronzes. Parts of the collection were transferred to the Grande Galerie in the Louvre for occasional, selective public viewing. The rest was kept at the king’s private residence, Versailles. Eventually Louis XV (reigned 1715–1774) brought some paintings to the Luxembourg Palace, Paris, where the public could view them, on two days a week. In 16th century Spain, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V gathered masterpieces now housed in the Museo del Prado, Madrid. His son Philip II rescued numerous religious images from the iconoclastic Netherlands, and took them to Spain. In the 17th century, Philip IV added magnificent Italian works to the Spanish royal collections.

In the 17th century, escalating interest in science expanded the realm of interests and opportunities for collectors. With the discovery of the Americas and newly opened trade routes to Asia, rare tropical animals, birds, plants, rocks and insects rapidly found their way into eclectic curiosity cabinets. Collectors began to organize their holdings according to classification systems, presaging the collection management practices of today’s museums. One of the best-known collections of the 17th century belonged to British naturalist John Tradescant the Elder and his son, John Tradescant the Younger. The elder served as gardener to King Charles I, and was succeeded in that post by his son. Both of the Tradescants traveled widely and amassed a large collection of rarities, ranging from botanical specimens to preserved animals to gems and minerals. They allowed members of the public, for a fee, to view their magnificent collection at their home, which become widely known as “The Ark.” After the younger Tradescant’s death in 1662, the collection passed to antiquarian Elias Ashmole, who eventually gave it to the Oxford University. In 1683 the university established the Ashmolean Museum (now the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology), with the Tradescant collection as its foundation. The Ashmolean was the first public natural history museum in the world and marked the first English use of the word museum.
Many early cabinets of curiosity were lost or dispersed, including the early 17th century collection in Prague of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, which included European paintings, objects from Egypt and India, and musical, scientific, and other instruments.
Public museums in Europe started in the 18th century, by the end of which, the establishment of museums in the New World had begun. Growth in mercantilism, decline of court patronage, and the rise of new money led to a more sophisticated style of living and increasing interest in arts. The Industrial Revolution stimulated public fascination with science and technology, but the new “public” museums were usually inaccessible to all but the aristocracy. In 1737 the Medicis bequeathed their collection to Florence, paving the way for the Uffizi Gallery, then the Vatican Museum complex (1756). These collections weren’t arranged with much systematic order. In 1781, in Vienna, the Belvedere Palace of the Hapsburgs opened with an outstanding collection of art, paintings divided into two groups, northern and southern European, but not arranged by period.
The French Republic opened the Louvre in 1793, its fabulous art treasures accessible to the public on three days of each “decade” (a 10-day unit which briefly replaced the week). The Conservatoire de Musée National (National Museum Conservatory) was charged with organizing the Louvre as a national public museum, the centerpiece of a planned national museum system. Napoleon confiscated art objects as he conquered; collections grew and the organizational task became increasingly complicated. After his defeat in 1815, many treasures were returned, but Napoleon’s concept of a museum as an agent of nationalistic fervor had a profound influence throughout Europe.
In Spain, the idea of a public museum began taking shape under Kings Charles III and IV, and gained momentum under French control. A royal decree in 1809, by the “intruder king” Joseph Bonaparte (Napoleon’s brother), ordered artworks from all palaces and public buildings brought together in a museum of paintings in Madrid, but it was Spanish King Ferdinand Vii who opened Madrid’s Museo del Prado.
In England, London physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane amassed thousands of specimens of natural history in the early 18th century. By 1735 his collection numbered nearly 70,000 items, with books, archaeological objects, mathematical instruments, precious stones, minerals, cameos, seals, tropical plants, and antique coins and medals. He left his collection to the city of London, with the understanding that it be made public; it became the basis for the British Museum (Bloomsbury district, Camden borough – founded 1753). At the time of its opening, visitors had to apply in writing to gain admission. Even by 1800 people waited up to two weeks for admission, then were allowed stays of just two hours, in small groups.
Americans, anxious to follow the lead of “enlightened” Europe, had begun to establish museums even before the American Revolution. In 1750, Harvard College in Massachusetts colony was collecting unusual objects for its Repository of Curiosities. The first official museum in the New World was founded by the Library Society of Charles Town (now Charleston), South Carolina, in 1773. Its purpose was to collect material related to the natural history of that colony. The Charleston Museum today is the United States’ oldest continuously existing museum. An early contributor to the public museum movement in the USA was Charles Wilson Peale, an artist of the late 18th and early 19th centuries known for his portraits of Revolutionary War figures. In 1786 Peale turned a wing of his Philadelphia home into an exhibition hall and invited his fellow citizens to view his paintings and collection of animal and mineral specimens. Peale kept meticulous records of his objects and was more than a century ahead of his time in presenting natural history specimens in simulated natural habitats. When the collection outgrew the Peale home, it was moved to Philosophical Hall and later to the State House, now known as Independence Hall. Peale’s museum, known as the Philadelphia Museum or Peale’s American Museum, thrived there until 1827; it then moved and eventually closed in 1854 due to financial difficulties. Peale’s son, portrait artist Rembrandt Peale, opened his own public museum, the Peale Museum, in Baltimore in 1814. It displayed not only art but also animal specimens, coins and other curiosities; its building was the first structure in the United States specifically designed to serve as a museum. Peale’s collection, among others, was bought (in the 1840s) by Phineas T. Barnum – who, by adding showmanship, created a more financially successful enterprise.
The truly modern concept of the public museum started with the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (CNAM) in Paris (1794) and the Science Museum in London (1857). In Western Europe, beginning in the mid-1800s, nearly every nation formed an encyclopedic national museum of art, science, or natural history. In Canada, the Geological Survey of Canada, started in 1842, began collecting specimens that would form the basis of National Museum of Canada (later renamed the National Museum of Natural Sciences and now called the Canadian Museum of Nature); and in 1880 the government launched the National Gallery of Canada. A burst of museum-making in the United States in the last half of the century gave rise to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut (1842); the Smithsonian Institute (1846) in Washington, D.C.; the American Museum of Natural History in New York City (1869) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1870), also in New York City; in Boston, Massachusetts, the Museum of Science (1830) and the Museum of Fine Arts (1870); the Pennsylvania Museum (now the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1877) in Philadelphia; and the Field Museum (1893) in Chicago, Illinois. The first historic-house museum, Hasbrouck House in Newburgh, New Jersey, opened to the public in 1850. That house had served as the headquarters for George Washington in 1782 and 1783, during the American Revolution.
From 1851, with the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London (which gave rise to the South Kensington Science Museum), “world exhibitions” increased awareness, revolutionized exhibition techniques, and signaled a new trend in public participation. For the first time, large parts of the public, including the lower-middle and even working classes, were given the opportunity to behold the plethora of achievements of modern science and technology. These exhibitions and museums were initiated, founded and run by national governments; the education of the public surely took second place to promotion of trade, tourism and modernization, and the need to train and attract skilled labor. But to demonstrate the progress of the industrialized world and to stimulate trade, competition and craftsmanship was vital to national interests, so spreading information was vital.
Cultural exhibits in the Paris Exhibition of 1867, and an exhibit on mammal and fish resources developed by the Smithsonian Institution for the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876 represent great progressive strides. The introduction of a complete electric-lighting system, first demonstrated to the public in the Paris Electrical Exhibition of 1881, advanced museum displays and made possible stage-like settings for exhibits. The Field Museum in Chicago resulted from the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.
The dramatic growth in the number and scope of museums during the 19th century stimulated active discussion about their role in society. This discussion persisted through the 20th century, as changes in museums continued to parallel global political, economic, and social changes.
After the 1st ‘World War’ (1914-1918), museums in the United States, Great Britain, France, and northern Europe began to shape programs to satisfy an increasingly perceived need for public education. Political change slowed development in many central, southern and eastern European museums, and World War II (1939-1945) destroyed many museums; only afterwards could Europe’s museums free themselves of monolithic state supervisory structures, and begin to develop into vital cultural institutions important to their general communities. But museums had already begun to catch on internationally – the more modern, ambitious and exploitative the society, the more readily.
India’s older museums, established by the British as natural history museums in the 19th century, in time acquired comprehensive collections. The Indian Museum, the first museum (at least of its, the modern, kind) in Asia, was founded by Dr. Nathaniel Wallach, a Danish botanist, at in Kolcata (Calcutta), at the Asiatic Society of Bengal (founded by William Jones in 1784 as the “Asiatick Society”). The largest museum in India, it started with “curiosities” (antiques, armor and ornaments, fossils, skeletons, mummies, and Mughal paintings). Dr Wallich (the spelling varies) made two sections - an archaeological, ethnological and technical section, and a geological and zoological one. Now the museum has many rare books manuscripts, and archival records. Other exhibits involve art, archaeology, anthropology, geology, zoology and industry. The National Museum in New Delhi has manuscripts, Central Asian paintings, sculpture and coins. Collections of Indian textiles can be seen in the Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmadābād and the Crafts Museum in New Delhi, which also has outstanding examples of Indian folk art from all over the country.
The oldest and largest museum in Japan is the Tokyo National Museum (founded 1871). It has the finest collection of Japanese art in the world, and a representative collection of Asian art and archaeology. The Science Museum of Tokyo has special interactive educational exhibits. The heritage of the city and its precursor, Edo, are preserved in the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Other national, regional, and local museums preserve and interpret Japanese culture, including the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka and the National Museum of Japanese History in Sakura. Modern and contemporary art are found in the National Museum of Modern Art, the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art (both in Tokyo) and elsewhere. Exhibiting art outdoors is popular in Japan: the Hakone Open-Air Museum and the Sapporo Art Park on the island of Hokkaidō are two examples.
China now has an extensive system of national, regional, and provincial museums. In Beijing, the Palace Museum (Gugong Bowuyuan or Ku-kung Po-wu-Yüan), located within the Forbidden City (ancient imperial palace), is the largest and most complete group of palace buildings in China. It contains a collection of nearly a million historic and cultural artifacts. The Shanghai Museum of Art and History, a major museum of ancient Chinese art, is well known for its collections of bronze, ceramics, paintings, and calligraphy. Near Xi’an in Shaanxi Province, thousands of life-sized, terra cotta warrior figures have been excavated on the site of the burial chamber of China’s first emperor, Qin Shihunagdi (Ch’in Shih-huang-ti), original builder of the Great Wall, who died 210 BCE. The Museum of the Terracotta Warriors and Horses, located on the site, is popular with tourists. Other major Chinese museums include the Museum of Chinese History, the Museum of the Chinese Revolution, and the Chinese Military Museum, all in Beijing. Hong Kong’s museums include the Museum of History and the Museum of Art. In Taiwan, the National Palace Museum in Taipei has one of the world’s greatest collections of Chinese art and objects, with holdings dating back to 3000 BCE. Highlights of its collection include jade ornaments from Neolithic cultures, bronzes from the Shang and Zhou dynasties, ceramics and rare books from the Song Dynasty, and paintings and calligraphy from the Tang, Sung, and Yuan dynasties.
The National Museum of Korea in Seoul, South Korea, has a collection of archaeological materials, while the National Folklore Museum, also in Seoul, focuses on traditional and popular arts. South Korea has several outdoor cultural heritage museums, including the Korean Folk Village.
In Singapore, the government’s National Heritage Board administers the Singapore Art Museum, housed in a colonial building once known as the Raffles Museum, a museum of Asian cultures, and a museum devoted to Singapore history. The Singapore Science Center is an ‘interactive’ museum of science and technology.
The two major museums in the Philippines are both in Manila. The National Museum of the Philippines specializes in anthropology, botany, geology, zoology, and art; the Museum of Arts and Sciences has collections documenting the natural history, ethnography, and art of the Philippines.
Indonesia’s National Museum in Jakarta houses treasures from the 19th century courts of Indonesia as well as historical, archaeological, and ethnographic collections.
Museums in Thailand include the National Museum (focused on history) and the Science Museum, both in Bangkok, and a splendid, privately-owned museum, Sgt. Major Thawee’s Folk Museum, in Pitsanulok.
In Vietnam, the Vietnam Museum of Fine Arts in Hanoi traces the evolution of Vietnamese architecture, sculpture, drawing, and fine arts. The Army Museum, also in Hanoi, includes weaponry and aircraft from the Vietnam War. Australia has a variety of museums that reflect its unique natural history, its Aboriginal heritage, and its art. The nation’s first museum, the Australian Museum (1827) in Sydney, is devoted to the natural history of the Australian continent and has a collection of materials related to Aborigines. The Queensland Museum in Brisbane also focuses on the natural history and ethnology of the Australian region. Museum Victoria in Melbourne is a complex including the Melbourne Museum, a cultural and natural history museum; Scienceworks, a science and technology museum; and the Immigration Museum and Hellenic Antiquities Museum. History museums in Australia include the Old Melbourne Gaol in Melbourne (the first permanent prison complex in Australia); the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney, focused on colonial exploration, ships, shipwrecks and Australian naval services; and the Museum of Sydney, which portrays life in early Australia. The National Museum of Australia in Canberra, opened 2001, interprets the complex origins of the continent and nation. Canberra’s Australian National Gallery holds the national art collection, with emphasis on Australian and Aboriginal art, and additional material from Asia, Africa, and Pacific Islands. The National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne shows European and Australian paintings and drawings, decorative arts, sculpture, Asian art, antiquities, and primitive art. Other important art museums are in Sydney, Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide.

Anthropology museums are probably the best known and most popular museums in Latin America. One of the world’s best anthropology museums is the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City (opened 1964). Its outstanding collections include rich archaeological finds from pre-conquest Mexico, particularly of Aztec and Mayan civilizations. Predominant is a prized Aztec calendar stone, massive at 22 metric tons. Also displayed are artifacts from the great pre-Columbian city of Teotihuacan and objects of Toltec civilization. The museum has exhibits on the modern peoples of Mexico, exploring music, dance, customs and crafts. Mexico City’s National Museum of History traces three centuries of Mexican history, beginning with the Spanish conquest.
The Archaeological Museum of La Serena in Chile has a comprehensive collection of artifacts from North America, South America, and the Pacific Islands, spanning a period from 3000 BCE to the 15th century CE. Peru has two important archaeological museums: the National Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology in Lima and the museum at the University of Cuzco. Both contain collections of Incan and pre-Incan textiles, pottery, gold, silver, wood, and shell objects. One of South America’s most unusual archaeological museums is the Gold Museum in the National Bank in Bogota, Colombia. It has a large collection of pre-Columbian gold objects.
The Argentine Museum of Natural Sciences in Buenos Aires, founded in 1823, was one of the first museums established in South America. Its extensive collections cover all fields of natural and human history but are especially strong in paleontology, anthropology, and entomology. In La Plata, the Museum of La Plata has well-known collections of reptile fossils. Latin American history museums usually focus on the history of the region beginning with the colonial period and continuing through the early 19th century revolutionary period to the present. Some also contain religious objects. It’s housed in Chapultepec Castle and an adjoining circular structure. One of South America’s best-known history museums is the National Historical Museum of Argentina in Buenos Aires. Its extensive collections depict Argentine history from the Spanish colonial period through the revolutionary wars. In Bogota, Colombia, the National Museum also traces the nation’s history from the Spanish conquest. The National History Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, founded in 1922, features exhibits on many aspects of Brazilian history. It in the Casa do Trem, an excellent example of early Portuguese architecture, and especially known for its coin and stamp collections. The Paulista Museum in São Paulo was erected on the spot where the independence of Brazil was proclaimed in 1822. It displays regional history, religious art, and ethnographic material. The Museu do Índio (Indian Museum) in Rio de Janeiro, founded in 1953, is dedicated to research and education on the indigenous cultures of Brazil.
Museums are now big business, attracting billions of tourist dollars, advancing science, and educating and amusing more than 850 million people annually in the USA alone (there are more than 17,500 of them throughout the U.S.).
Some significant, important museums:
The Getty Center, Los Angeles, USA
The Museum of Civilization, Ottawa/Hull, Canada
The UBC Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver, Canada
The Museo Nazionale d’Arts Orientale, Rome, Italy
The Berlin Museum, Berlin, Germany
The Pergamon Museum, Bonn
Deutsches Museum (or Science and Technology), Munich
The Riiksmuseum, Amsterdam, Holland
The Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, Belgium
The Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria
The Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden
The Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen, Denmark
The Archaologische Sammlung der Universitat, Zurich
The Nicholson Museum of Antiquities, Sydney, Australia
The National Museum, Auckland, New Zealand
The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel
Lahore Museum, Lahore, Pakistan
Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Hawaii
Egyptian Museum, Cairo

And in NYC:
The Museum of American Finance
Museum of the City of New York
Museum of Chinese in America
Museum of Jewish Heritage
Museum of Sex
Museum of Television and Radio
National Museum of the American Indian
National Museum of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender History
Brooklyn Museum
The American Museum of National History
And many, many of the world’s finest art museums, including New York’s Metropolitan.