Discovering the Rubin Museum: A Fieldtrip Report
"I teach a Psychology course called Laboratory in Sensation and Perception at York College. I approach the course in multidisciplinary fashion by bringing in examples from culture and the arts to serve as illustrations of how humans interact with the world through our senses. Emily Auchincloss and Ramon Pratts gave an extraordinary presentation to my class during our recent visit to the Rubin Museum. Their explanations regarding the relationship between art and sensory experience were incredibly helpful to my students. Listening to someone who has experience in numerous areas within the arts gave students a chance to better understand some of the technicalities of processing sensory information and to see how seemingly physiological reactions are linked to cultural and emotional ones. Since our visit, my students’ remarks and questions make it clear that the experience has had a major impact on their understanding of art in general and as an expression of the sacred. No description I could have given about the sensory aspects of emotional memory could possibly compare to what Ms. Auchincloss and Dr. Pratts were able to do with their knowledge and the resources at the Museum."
Dr. Donna Chirico
Associate Professor in Psychology.
My visit to the Rubin Museum of art was an extraordinary one. My classmates and professors were greeted by Dr. Ramon Prats, a Tibetologist who is the Senior Research Curator at the Museum, and Ms. Emily Auchincloss, Coordinator of Educational Programs. They were very cordial and welcoming to us leading our group on a two-hour tour of the museum’s collection.
As we proceeded, Dr. Prats and Ms. Auchincloss explained, told stories, answered questions, and treated us as if we were honored guests. The Rubin Museum exhibits Himalayan art that is spiritual and religious. The borders of some of these painting are edged with silk textiles while other sculptures were made of stone that is usually coated in bronze. The materials used are found locally in the areas of Northern India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet.
The first exhibit was of a Buddha statue that was made out of stone. Buddha is a deity whose life teachings are about kindness, compassion and love where the goal of right action is achieving the enlightened state. Showing us this piece gave our hosts the chance to explain some tenets of Buddhism and the meaning of this artwork in a sacred context.
Our second display was a “Wheel of Life.” This was displayed on a silk fabric embellished with bright shades of a various colors. This consisted of a Yama, the Lord of Death, clutching the wheel of life. Lord Yama shows us how life unfolds in cyclical pattern. As we go through life there are six sections of the circle and it is our karma, our actions, that determines how we are reborn. According to Lord Yama there is a way out of this cycle and the human existence is the best way to find release. At the top of this icon are the mortal gods who are divine beings, followed by jealous gods.
Thirdly are the hungry ghosts that are never satisfied. They are followed by the hell realm, the animal realm and most importantly the human realm. Tibetan Buddhists believe when you bring an end to being reborn then you become Buddha. Another amazing piece from Nepal that is part of the Rubin’s newest collection is the “Mandala.” This is also displayed on a beautiful fabric with stunning colors. It encompasses four squares within circles and in the center of each there is a central figure. The circles all look alike but they can be differentiated by looking at the central figure and by the colors used that all have different meanings. The path illustrated in each is a labyrinth taking different twists and turns to the same destination. This destination is to reach awakening. To get to this state a person has to overcome attachment to self by understanding that the self does not exist.
The final sculpture we saw was a statue of lord Vajrasattva. He was covered in bronze and is the lord of a hundred Buddha families. This statue was placed on a pedestal and this like all the other deities are consecrated which means that they are made sacred. This is done by filling them with prayers and mantras thus “bringing them to life.”
Our trip was arranged by Professor Donna Chirico as part of our course called Laboratory in Sensation and Perception. She was able to do this thanks to a tip from Provost Griffith about an initiative that was proposed between the Rubin and CUNY. Professor Chirico seized the opportunity because it meant we could go for free, but she told us that the enthusiasm expressed and willingness to tailor the visit for this specific class from Dr. Prats and Ms. Auchinclass was beyond her expectations. This is one of several field experiences this term that is bringing the ideas covered in the textbook into the real world. It is one thing to read about the psychological aspects of art and religion as each relates to sensation and perception, but to experience these dimensions creates a chance to learn in way that is quite rewarding.
This semester our class also went to the New York Hall of Science and for our last trip we will see “Sunday in the Park with George,” which will be followed by a conversation about the creation of perceptions in music and theater with the show’s composer, Stephen Sondheim. Our visit to the Rubin Museum was definitely fantastic as it educated us about Himalayan art and it expanded our knowledge of the Tibetan beliefs. Our perceptions of art, religion, and psychology have definitely been broadened!
-Lisa Mulchin - York College Student