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BURMA (MYANMAR)

Currently, the collection of Burmese art at Denison University includes wood-carving; lacquerware; bronze, silver, and ivory objects; Buddha images; textiles; manuscripts; and works on paper. The dates of objects range from the Pyu period (seventh to ninth centuries) through the twentieth century. The textiles, Buddha images, and lacquerware comprise the most extensive portions of the collection, and altogether there are about 1,500 items. The representation of a broad expanse of periods and materials makes the Denison collection one of the most comprehensive in the United States.

The textiles, consisting of more than six hundred items, form the largest part of the collection, and include pieces from the Burman culture and from the multiple hill groups found in the mountain ranges that surround the central lowland. Given the fact that the missionaries were primarily located in the highlands of Burma, it is unsurprising that they should have amassed works of art from the regional locals. The Burman textiles number about two hundred and forty pieces, and consist of silks and cotton clothing. Of the hill groups, Karen textiles are best represented, followed by Kachin, Chin, Shan, and Lahu. Denison’s collection also includes a few pieces from the Mon, Wa, Akha, and other groups. Denison’s holdings are particularly rich in tunics and shoulder bags. The oldest Burmese textile is a temple hanging which dates to the eighteenth century, and a tapestry dates to the 1840s. Most of the other pieces date from the mid to late nineteenth century or the early to mid twentieth century.

The collection of Buddha images is likewise extensive with eighty-two items ranging in date from the ninth to the twentieth centuries. The collection is unusual in that it contains multiple items from the Shan and Mon groups, in addition to its Burman Buddha images. In general, there is a predominance of the crowned image type, which was very popular in Burma. The holdings are strongest in sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, and includes a rare dated seventeenth century image. However, Denison is also fortunate to have a complete Pyu sandstone image dated from the seventh to ninth centuries, one of the earliest of its type, and a bronze walking Buddha from the Bagan period (eleventh to thirteenth century). The group of nineteenth century Buddha images is a comprehensive one, with standing and seated figures, as well as unusual representations of the Buddha shielded by Muchalinda Naga. Complementing the collection of Buddha images are nineteenth century standing and seated images of devotees and monks, as well as votive tablets. The latter range in date from the eleventh through the seventeenth centuries, and give evidence of popular worship and Buddhist religious practices. The lacquer collection comprises household and ceremonial objects produced in several different techniques. The household items include bowls, cups, plates, betel boxes, and vases, and the ceremonial objects include hsun-ok (offering vessels), offering vessels and boxes, and manuscript chests. The main lacquer production techniques represented in the collection are shwezawa (gold leaf over black lacquer), yun (incised and decorated with multiple colors), and the method of molding lacquer to create images and decoration fully in the round. The lacquer items date from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries.

The wood-carving collection is contains architectural and decorative pieces from monasteries; however,
a few tourist items are also made out of wood. These include nearly life-size wooden dancing women,
and approximately six inch high figurines of the hill group peoples in traditional dress. Of the architectural
objects, Denison holds a carving that would have once been mounted over a doorway and panels with
intricate floral carving and figural sculptures of ogres, the earth goddess, and dancing figures, which
would have been used to adorn a plinth for a Buddha image. The wooden panels at Denison come from
the interiors of monastic buildings. Many of these show the Jataka stories (tales of the Buddha’s previous
incarnations) or scenes from the life of the Buddha. Two particularly fine carvings of the Great Departure
and the Vessantara Jataka were collected by the Reverend Sidney Hollingworth in 1927 from Kyaung
Thit monastery in Samka (in the Shan States) in Burma. His records indicate that the sculptures were
produced around 1900, and that the head monk was willing to sell the pieces because the monastery was
falling into disrepair due to lack of funds. Hollingworth originally purchased four of the carvings, and two
were given to Denison in 1979 by his daughter, Florence Wright.

The Burmese silver collection consists of a wide variety of items for use by the Burmese, as well as pieces
made for tourist/missionary market and trophies garnered by missionaries in competitions (e.g. golf) in
Burma. Pieces for Burmese use include jewelry, oblation bowls, daggers, betel nut boxes, and clothing
accessories. Cigarette holders, napkin rings, teapots, and sugar and cream sets were popular with the
missionaries, and are therefore also represented in the Denison collection. All the silver objects date from
the mid to late nineteenth century or the early twentieth century. Other metal items in the collection include
six bronze drums from the Karen culture in the highlands of Burma. These date to the nineteenth century.
The Denison collection also contains a number of manuscripts. Some Pali palm-leaf religious texts are
held, along with a single kamawaza (a lacquer religious manuscript), and an illustrated parabaik (a
paper manuscript) of the Temiya Jataka. These objects date to the nineteenth century. Other works on
paper include watercolor paintings by the well-known twentieth century Burmese artist, M.T. Hla, and
Denison also has one of the largest collections of prints produced by an Anglo-Burmese artist named E.G.
MacColl. These latter pieces include etchings of the Burmese landscape and people going about daily
tasks, as well as portraits of the various hill groups in traditional dress.

“One of the most important rules for working in a museum: Do not bleed on the object!”

— Anna Cannizzo, Curator of Collections