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(Re)Collecting Southeast Asia at the Johnson Museum

Re-Collecting image Griswold
May 18, 2021

by SEAP grad students Alexandra Dalferro, Anissa Rahadiningtyas, and Astara Light

SEAP is very excited to share the virtual exhibit and SEAP Spring '21 Bulletin article by Astara, Alexandra, and Anissa celebrating SEAP's 70th anniversary and longstanding presence at the Cornell Johnson Museum of Art. They trace memories and histories of objects from Southeast Asia at the museum, foregrounding the social and geopolitical underpinnings of collecting and the roles of collectors. The essays include a wonderful interview with Ajan Thak Chaloemtiarana about his collections, a deep investigation of shadow puppets at the museum, a look at the life and activities of an expert on Southeast Asian ceramics, Ruth B. Sharp, and lots more, with more content to be added in the coming weeks. 

When we first met with Kaja McGowan and Ellen Avril in February 2020 to begin planning for an exhibit at the Johnson Museum to commemorate the 70th anniversary of SEAP, we had already canvassed the fifth floor with excitement. We dreamed up possibilities for a physical exhibit that would include a wall of disembodied Buddha heads, an ider-ider (a Balinese temple hanging) encircling and protecting a room full of ceramics and wayang, and object pairings that juxtaposed the shifts and similarities in collection practices of SEAP-affiliated people from the past to the present.

While we continue to hold these ideas in our minds for post-pandemic opportunities, our exhibit, “Recollecting: Celebrating the 70th Anniversary of SEAP at the Johnson Museum,” has shifted to virtual space with the help of Cornell University Library Digital Scholarship program, which provided the platform to house the exhibit. This exhibit showcases a collection of objects at the Johnson Museum that have been donated by alumni and faculty of SEAP, beginning in the 1970s with gifts of Buddhist sculpture from Thailand from SEAP Visiting Professor of Southeast Asian Art and Archaeology, Alexander B. Griswold. 

In creating this collection of a collection, our approach is both reflexive and reflective, emphasizing the history of collecting and its social and geopolitical underpinnings. As we consider objects in relation to the journeys that brought them to Ithaca, we attempt to foreground memories and voices of individuals who contributed to the collection or who have engaged with it in meaningful ways, especially those who may not be recognized in usual or existing coverage of the objects, like spouses, assistants, students, and faculty members who use the objects as integral dimensions of their pedagogy and coursework. In order to historicize the processes of collecting and the production of scholarship and teaching materials based on these objects, we have relied on archival materials held at Cornell’s Rare and Manuscript Collections. We have also looked to the Johnson Museum’s acquisition records and exhibition history to understand the ongoing recontextualizations of these collections as mediated by curators and SEAP faculty and students. 

Sculptures donated to the museum by Alexander Griswold are often on display at the Johnson Museum, and one standing Buddha can be found at the Kahin Center, partaking in meetings and meals in the small conference room. Before they arrived in Ithaca, these objects resided at Griswold’s estate, Breezewood, in Monkton, Maryland. Griswold was sent to Thailand while serving in the US army and working for the Office of Strategic Services. He landed in Bangkok in the closing days of World War II and quickly became fascinated by Thai art history and archaeology.

In a 1976 feature on Griswold and his collection in the Baltimore Sun Magazine, Griswold related that the first pieces he ever bought in 1945 in Bangkok were small, sculpted, detached heads. “They were plentiful and cheap in those days,” he said.[i] Griswold sought to create a comprehensive collection of Thai Buddhist sculpture that could indicate historical patterns, adaptations, and transformations of aesthetics and beliefs. Following an active period of accumulation in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he stopped acquiring objects by 1954, and he gradually developed a distanced attitude towards his collection.

Some speculate that this distance was related to Griswold’s shift in research focus from art history to epigraphy. In letters he wrote to one of his mentors, George Cœdès, additional possible reasons for his detached stance emerge. Griswold was increasingly dismayed by the “alarming” and “astonishing” situation” of the “mutilation” of statues in Thailand, noting in 1966 that many Buddha images had their heads and hands cut off to meet the demands of the burgeoning antiquities market, as tourists preferred to buy these parts but not bodies.[ii] Nevertheless, many such heads were part of Griswold’s collection, material reminders of the Westward travels of potentially looted artifacts from Southeast Asia that have found their way into museums and private residences since the long period of colonization. In the late 60s and early 70s, when Griswold taught at Cornell, he held annual “Breezewood Seminars” at his home for Cornell graduate students and faculty, who spent three days amidst Griswold’s collection, learning about Thai art history through direct exposure to sculptures, paintings, and reliefs. READ MORE

[i] J. Wynn Rousuck, Surprise Beyond the Trees: One of the Country’s Best Collections of Siamese Art (Baltimore: The Sun Magazine, 1976), 19.

[ii] Alexander Griswold papers, #4290 (Ithaca: Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library).

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