Himalayan exhibit unites regional artifacts

The new Himalayan Collection exhibit in Sterling Memorial Library is a sign of growing interest in the region over the past few years at Yale.
The new Himalayan Collection exhibit in Sterling Memorial Library is a sign of growing interest in the region over the past few years at Yale. Photo by Jennifer Gersten.

There’s a revolution brewing beneath the Stacks.

The Sterling Memorial Library Memorabilia Room opened its “Himalayan Collection at Yale” exhibit Feb. 4, displaying samples of Himalayan collections from across the University. The exhibit brings together artifacts and manuscripts acquired by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the Yale Center for British Art, the Yale Divinity School and Sterling Library throughout Yale’s long relationship with the region. The exhibit was created in the hopes of bridging the gap between departments studying the Himalayas separately.

“Yale often feels very segmented and fragmented,” said Andrew Quintman, a religious studies professor, co-curator of the exhibit and member of the Yale Himalaya Initiative. “The study of the Himalayas is a wonderful means to bringing people from various backgrounds unified together in a common cause.”

Quintman said the Himalayan region serves well as a unifying topic since it lies, geographically and intellectually, at the juncture of traditional areas of study. The Himalayas sit at the meeting place of East, South and Southeast Asia, and are an important region in fields ranging from religious studies to art and at schools like the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the School of Public Health, among others.

But the Himalayas’ position at the intersection of disciplines and countries has kept the area in the academic shadows for years, Quintman said. Its location between India and China, two of the fastest-growing countries in the world, caused the area to be overlooked and understudied. Quintman explained that only during the past eight or nine years has Yale seen a resurgence in interest in the area.

“It’s a part of the world which is often seen as peripheral — the Himalayan region is anything but,” said Sara Shneiderman, a professor of anthropology and South Asian studies who is a member of the Yale Himalaya Initiative.

The Himalayas are a center of environmental transformation, climate change and ecological transitions, making it a target area for environmental studies, Shneiderman said. She added that studying the region’s history and contemporary politics can enrich scholars’ understanding of global alignment and realignment due to its location between politically powerful countries.

By bringing together artifacts from different parts of the University, the exhibit highlights these important qualities of the area.

“We have all of these bits and pieces,” said Mark Turin, director of the Yale Himalaya Initiative. “Our exhibit is the first to try to integrate them and put them in conversation and see what interests emerge.”

Turin said that since the collections have been scattered throughout the University for decades, it has not been possible to display the diversity and interconnectedness of individual departments’ holdings. Visitors to various exhibits throughout campus have always gotten a disjointed view of what the University has to offer, causing students and scholars alike to dismiss the region’s prominence in the academic realm. That the exhibit was co-curated by two professors from different departments and a curator at Sterling — Sarah Calhoun — demonstrates its interdisciplinary focus, Turin explained.

“By putting [the pieces] together in one case, we hope that connectivity will grow,” Turin said.

The exhibit also highlights Yale’s historically close relationship with the Himalayas through artifacts like the first volume of the 100-volume Lhasa Kangyur, which is part of the Tibetan Buddhist canon. The collection was acquired by Wesley Needham, a self-taught expert on Tibet who worked unofficially at the Beinecke in 1950, through connections he forged with the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet.

Interest in the Himalayan region is crescendoing among Yale students, Turin said, pointing to the rich course selection on the region’s history, culture and languages. Turin said he hopes that by bringing the University’s Himalayan holdings to the forefront, international scholars will be drawn to Yale to work on the collection as residents and fellows.

The exhibit will be open until March 31.

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