Perhaps first among the Philadelphia Museum of Art's many distinctions is the extent to which historic architecture is integrated into its galleries—vestiges, together with period rooms, of director Fiske Kimball's transformation of the institution from a museum of craft to one of contextualized material culture.1 Nowhere is this legacy more evident today than along the approach to the museum's South Asian collection, via the south wing's central galleries, through a series of medieval European architectural ensembles. The eastward turn to the wing's outer arm corresponds to an analogous cultural shift. The view along this axis reveals, in nested succession, a barrel-vaulted Sassanian portal, an archway flanked by Safavid tile work, and finally, the figured granite pillars of a South Indian temple hall (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Interior of a pillared temple hall from Madurai, Tamil Nadu, ca. 1550, installed in the South Asian Galleries, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2016 (photo courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art).

Figure 1

Interior of a pillared temple hall from Madurai, Tamil Nadu, ca. 1550, installed in the South Asian Galleries, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2016 (photo courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art).

So strong is the pull along this axis of monumental architecture that only the most astute might notice a small doorway—to an introductory gallery—on the right. The rest of us, indulgently, will proceed ahead to the South Asian galleries’ centerpiece: an assemblage of architectural elements from a mid-sixteenth-century Hindu temple pavilion, purchased by a wealthy Philadelphian who had honeymooned in India in 1912. Standing exactly where it has since this wing opened in 1940, this hall, like the galleries it anchors, has been brilliantly transformed by curator Darielle Mason. Her comprehensive reinstallation of Philadelphia's South Asian galleries—their first in four decades—reanimates the world-class collection.

Previously presented as an internal chamber of a temple, this hall was dark, mysterious, even foreboding. Mason brings the structure out of the shadows to convey its actual original siting as a freestanding, open-air pavilion. Light now spills down around its outer colonnade, reflecting off gallery walls painted light blue to evoke midday Indian daylight. The structure's previously dim interior now gently glows, lending a new legibility to its sculptural program. Emblematic of the entire reinstallation, this central gallery, formerly obscured, is now enlightened: open, inviting, and accessible. Benches welcome visitors inside, and nifty gallery guides—formatted like fanned paint-color decks—introduce us to the mythic figures on its columns. Bronze sculptures and colorful textiles now join guests within the colonnades, and a nearby looping video of footage shot within the temple complex where this pavilion once stood conveys the activity, color, and noise that would once have filled it. The temple hall, again, lives.

The visitor has choices where to venture next. A large Mongolian bronze of the Buddhist goddess Tara beckons one into the Himalayan gallery, a component of the renovation that feels not yet fully realized. Or, lured by the temple video, one can enter a trio of galleries that have long housed the core Indian collection. Like the temple hall, these spaces have been altered subtly in ways that make for more engaging, far richer presentations. Their doorways, now aligned—and reaching into the Southeast Asian gallery—reveal the collection's embarrassment of sculptural riches. Most exterior windows have been covered, allowing for mixing of media—including light-sensitive paintings and textiles—in thematic groupings that cross periods, places, and religious traditions to explore pan-Indian concepts. Previously diffused window light and painted-concrete floors are replaced by warm gallery lighting and wooden flooring, and blue walls—carried over from the temple hall—enhance earth-toned sculptures and colorful paintings and textiles.

Future rotations from the deep collection are anticipated by the galleries’ design, with versatile casework allowing for easy modification of object groupings and the themes they elucidate. In this way, too, the galleries feel alive. Generous traditional didactics—printed text panels and object labels—expertly guide the visitor, who will intuitively know how to calibrate their use to the desired depth of detail. Promising even deeper dives, interactive digital kiosks are perhaps harder to control, the layered offerings of their glowing, tactilely responsive screens easily seducing the visitor away from the very objects they explore. While the instructive potential of accompanying didactics varies, where Mason's team excels is in the didactics of display itself. Case in point: In the smallest of these core galleries, dedicated to temple sculpture, a full-wall photomural shows the exterior of a North Indian temple. Installed directly onto this two-dimensional image, matching its scale and resonating with its iconography, are sculptures from the collection. As with her achievement in the temple hall, Mason breathes life into these sculptural fragments by exhibiting them in a way that requires the visitor's active participation.

Rivaling the temple hall's immersive experience is a diminutive gallery housing another Kimball-period architectural installation, once fatigued but newly invigorated. Displayed under the honeycomb-like muqarnas of a Safavid-period vaulted archway is a single object, an exquisitely illuminated Indian manuscript. Near-contemporary products of Persianate court culture, the book and the architecture are well matched, but Mason's biggest curatorial gamble—and one that pays off handsomely—is the animation of the two, literally, with a third work. On the back wall of the tiny domed cubiculum beyond the vaulted archway plays a video commissioned from Shahzia Sikander, its imagery inspired by the manuscript's illustrations. This hypnotic work, and its enveloping soundscape by Du Yun, brings alive the manuscript's subject—the soul's longing for mystical union with God—in ways no amount of accompanying didactics ever could.

Finally, there is that gallery, off to the right, so easily forgone for the temple hall. Here the history of Philadelphia's Indian collection is told through the story of the curator who built it, Stella Kramrisch. Among the objects displayed from her personal collection is one of the museum's great masterpieces, a sandstone lingam—the phallic-shaped symbol of Shiva—from which emerges the Hindu god's visage. Set before another dramatic photomural, this sublime work is oriented toward that small door most of us will not have used. Save for approaching this masterwork in profile, there is little disadvantage to this room's serving as an appendix, rather than a preface, to the galleries. While Kramrisch's contributions to the South Asian collection are undeniable, the galleries that house it are now Mason's.

Note

Note
1.
See Kathleen Curran, “From Craft to Kulturgeschichte in Philadelphia: The Pennsylvania Museum of Art, 1876–1928,” in The Invention of the American Art Museum: From Craft to Kulturgeschichte, 1870–1930 (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2016).