Thangka see the light

By Adam Gerchick ’13

One of the 18 thangka

When Elizabeth Barker became director of the Mead Art Museum four years ago, she discovered that one of its collections was off-limits even to her. Fragile and in danger of cracking, the Mead’s collection of 18th-century Tibetan thangka (pronounced “tahn-kah”) had remained in storage for most of the six decades since their donation to the museum. Even to unroll the rare Buddhist scroll paintings was to risk damaging them further.

This fall, after nearly two years of intensive restoration, the Mead returned its 18 original thangka to their stunning intended appearances. The museum is presenting them in a special exhibition this academic year.

Donated in 1952 by George Hamilton, Class of 1893, the thangka likely hung in the Buddhist Royal Monastery of Tengye-ling, in Lhasa, Tibet, where they would have been used in religious ceremonies and prayer. Two to nine feet tall and composed of mineral pigments painted upon cotton fabric, the Mead’s pieces represent some of the earliest and finest examples of the New Menri School, Barker says: “They are as extraordinary as any other thangka in an American museum.”

In conjunction with the exhibition, Tibetan Buddhist monks created a sand mandala in Frost Library.

A grant from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation and extensive financial support from the college’s religion department allowed the Mead to complete the $100,000 restoration project in two years. The museum hired outside conservators, who carefully re-adhered cracking paint, delicately repaired torn stitching, removed dirt from the paintings’ surfaces and, for those thangka that had lost the scrolls upon which they hung, sewed historically appropriate replicas in keeping with Tibetan tradition. Barker is quick to note that the conservators did not paint over or add to any of the designs. They “did everything that needed to be done to take care of the thangka, but no more,” she says. “It isn’t a face lift. It’s more of a medically necessary procedure.”


Top photo: Guru Loden Chog-Sred, Fifth Manifestation/Mead Art Museum

Bottom photo: Mark Idleman ’15

See for yourself
Nine thangka are on display at Amherst’s Mead Art Museum until Jan. 1, 2012. From Jan. 20 through June 3, the Mead will exhibit its other nine. To see images of the 18 thangka, go to