Behind the Scenes of a Traveling Exhibition

I’m pleased to announce Shangri La’s participation in Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture exhibition, which opens Feb. 24 at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art in Provo, Utah.  This exhibition includes 13 objects from Shangri La’s own collection, as well as over 200 other Islamic art pieces from around the world.
Rosewater sprinkler, Iran, 18-19th century, glass, mold-blown and free-blown (47.9)
Beauty and Belief offers unique access to Islamic culture, providing “a view from within” according to Project Director Dr. Sabiha Al Khemir. It is an introduction to the arts of Islamic cultures, featuring historical periods and geographic regions spotlighted by select calligraphy, figurative imagery and pattern. The exhibition creates a space in which to encounter the visual language of Islam, enabling visitors to engage in cross-cultural dialogue and gain a deeper understanding of past and present cultures.
Preparing for such a significant exhibition has been exciting and challenging for Shangri La Collections staff. One of the more labor-intensive parts of any traveling exhibition is preparing the objects and art for transport.
If you get nervous handing your suitcase over to the luggage handler at the airport because you’re not too sure what you’ll get back on the other side, then you’ve begun to understand the deep anxiety that accompanies art shipping. So how exactly do we get something as fragile as the glass Rosewater Sprinker (pictured above) from Honolulu to various museums on the mainland and back again, all without a scratch?! Very carefully …
Hanging textile, North Africa, c.1800, cotton (83.19)
Collections staff carefully move all the objects to a staging area for crate packing. Staff take precautions to spare the objects as much stress as possible. As you can see in the image below, the hanging textile has been mounted to a frame (much like the way you would frame a picture) for added structural support. The textile is then wrapped in Tyvek to further protect it in the crate as it travels.
Handlers support each side of a large North African hanging textile as it is moved to the staging area for packing.
Once the objects are assembled and prepared for packing, each object is placed in its custom-made crate, designed to support and protect it. Each object will travel within its designated crate for the remainder of the traveling exhibition.
Placing the hanging textile in its custom-made crate.
Folio from a Qur'an, Near East or North Africa, c. 900, ink and pigment on parchment (11.25)
In the above image you can see a custom-made crate that has been doubly insulated and cushioned to provide the folio inside as much protection as possible from temperature and humidity fluxuations, as well as any vibration due to the rigors of travel.
Traveling exhibition staging area wtih crates.
Given Shangri La’s unique location, even getting the Crown Movers truck down the driveway is a challenge.
The Crown Movers truck backing down the driveway.
Once the truck is in place the crates can be loaded onto the truck. From here the crates will be taken directly to the Honolulu airport, where they will be loaded onto a plane bound for Los Angeles. From Los Angeles, the crates will be transported to Provo, Utah, by private transit.
Crown Movers crew moving the now crated hanging textile.
Loading the last crate on the Crown Movers truck!
Next stop Honolulu airport!
For more information on the Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture exhibition, visit Look for additional blog posts from our collections manager, Maja Clark, as she hits the road next month to assist with the exhibition installation in Provo!

A Meeting with the Mahatma

Kennedy in Mughal Suite at Shangri La, Sept. 2011

The following is a guest post by Shangri La scholar-in-residence Thalia Kennedy.

As a scholar-in-residence at Shangri La in September 2011, and thanks to the generous support of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, I have been carrying out research into the context and creation of the ‘Mughal’ architectural features that now adorn Doris Duke’s bedroom suite in Hawai‘i.  These luxurious decorative elements were ordered in 1935 during Doris Duke’s honeymoon. Following her marriage to James Cromwell in New York, the couple visited India as part of a 10-month world tour that would later take them to Hawai‘i, and to the future site of Shangri La at Black Point.  The heiress commissioned artisans in the Indian city of Agra to create inlaid marble panels and carved screens based in the artisanal and design traditions of the Mughal court of northern India.  The project was the first of a number for which Doris Duke engaged traditional artisans in India, Iran, Morocco and Pakistan, to complete decorative features at Shangri La.

Detail of marble panel with inlaid flowers crafted by artisans in Agra, India. David Franzen 2008. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i.

In pursuit of this research, the residency at Shangri La afforded the opportunity for close study of the bedroom suite itself, and related archival material from which to build a picture of the circumstances that spurred the enterprise.  Scrapbooks and letters that survive from the honeymoon, carefully conserved in the Shangri La Archive, document the visits and meetings the Cromwells attended on their tour, including their visit to the Taj Mahal, the known inspiration for the project.

Page from the Duke-Cromwell honeymoon scrapbook. In the upper left is a train ticket from Bombay to Wardha for the meeting with Gandhi. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i.

The archives also inform the broader context of the commission’s genesis and give details of its completion and transportation to Shangri La.  Amongst the photographs and newspaper clippings, I was interested to note a meeting in March 1935 between the couple and Mohandas K Gandhi at his ashram in Central India, around two weeks before the commission of the ‘Mughal’ architectural features.  Given Gandhi’s own interests in rural and crafts industry revival, I was curious as to what impact the meeting may have had on the heiress and her own patronage of artisanal crafts; and, by establishing more clearly how far Gandhi’s own philosophy of crafts revival and support had developed at the time, what his message may have been to the newlyweds.  I was also keen to find the original workshops and perhaps the families of artisans in Agra who had been involved in the project itself, and to identify and match further design prototypes for the final inlaid panels, from the Mughal buildings of Agra and Delhi.  The original location of the overseeing architects’ offices at Connaught Place in Delhi was also of interest, together with information I might gather from the National Archives.  Given these areas of research, I decided to visit India, to see what further information might be garnered in the sub-continent, and to build on my research and review of archival documents whilst resident at Shangri La.

Street scene today in Magan Wadi area, Wardha. Photo by Thalia Kennedy.

My exploration took me in early December 2011 to Delhi, and thence to the site of the meeting with Gandhi, the town of Wardha in the Indian state of Maharashtra, 78 kilometers from the major city of Nagpur.  Wardha occupies a central position in the subcontinent and, although journeys were long, in the 1930s the town was easily accessible from all regions by train.  Today, the area is just an hour’s flight from Delhi.  As I visited sites around the town, and talked with custodians and guides, it became clear that Wardha had been the central physical focus for Gandhi’s rural industry and crafts revival activities of the mid-1930s.   In the latter part of 1934, following his leadership of several movements to free India from British rule, Gandhi resigned as leader of the Congress party, with a new vow to focus on the revival of rural industries and crafts as a solution to the plight of India’s poor and lowest castes.  He moved his base to Wardha and, in the same year, inaugurated the All-India Village Industries Association (AIVIA) in the town’s district of Magan Wadi.  The site of the Association was a building and some land appropriated to Gandhi by his supporter and disciple, the industrialist Jamanalal Bajaj.  Its founding ethos was the support of villages and the promotion of craft industries as a viable means of addressing economic distress.  The site at Magan Wadi remains significant today, now home to the Mahatma Gandhi Institute for Rural Industrialization (MGIRI) and the Magansangrahalaya Smriti Museum, and a focus for visiting artisans and academics.  A number of further institutes and Gandhi’s later ashram outside Wardha actively continue and promote the various social initiatives and research begun at the time under his leadership.

Today’s entrance to the MGIRI, Magan Wadi, Wardha. Photo by Thalia Kennedy.

On 16th March 1935, in what is now a Library at MGIRI, Doris Duke Cromwell and James Cromwell attended an audience with Gandhi, travelling by train from Bombay for the meeting. From his own writings of February and March 1935, at the time Gandhi was actively promoting his theories of crafts education and the importance of traditional hand labor and tools, writing of the numberless village and town crafts in need of public support, to allow poor artisans to sustain themselves through engagement with “creative handicrafts”.  He was in regular attendance at crafts industry exhibitions, supported initiatives all over the sub-continent that were taking up his theories of crafts revival, and received formal political support from the Congress party under the new leadership of Jawarhalal Nehru.  The encounter in 1935 between the Cromwells and Gandhi was not long, less than an hour of discussion, before the Mahatma returned to a convention of artisans being held that day at AIVIA.

Left: Unidentified man, Doris Duke, and James Cromwell, en route to meet Gandhi. March 1935.                Right: Gandhi was meeting with the All-India Village Industries Association at Wardha when the Cromwells arrived. March 16, 1935. Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Despite its brevity, the meeting had great impact on the young heiress.  She compared Gandhi to the religious visionaries and figures of history, and was deeply impressed by his commitment to the position of women.  The accompanying United Press reporter also recorded the group’s discussion of the importance of rural industry and traditional production methods in India, in contrast to the rapid industrialization and mass production taking place in the United States at the time.  Gandhi impressed on the couple the significance of traditional crafts and manual tools for economic improvement and effective sustenance of India’s masses.

From Wardha, the Cromwells returned to Bombay by train before continuing on their tour to northern India, and to the historic capital of Agra, where they visited the great Mughal monuments of the city.  Doris Duke was so overwhelmed by the Taj Mahal that she determined to have inlaid panels and screens that imitated those at the famed building made for her own bathroom suite.

The Taj Mahal from Agra Fort. Photo by Thalia Kennedy.

She visited local workshops and spoke with artisans who still practiced their traditional hand manufacture.  Given the subject of their discussion with Gandhi, was it mere coincidence that Doris Duke – inspired by the beauty of the Taj Mahal – herself then requested traditional artisans, skilled in the marble-carving and inlay industry for which Agra’s craftsmen are still famed, to complete a series of pieces?  Was her decision influenced to some degree by the meeting with Gandhi and his message?  My research and visit to Wardha did not uncover a specific recorded instruction from Gandhi to the Cromwells to carry out such an undertaking, nor is there reference to Gandhi in James Cromwell’s letters held at the Shangri La Archive.  But my visit did make it clear that the Agra commission took place against the backdrop of a wider burgeoning crafts revival movement in the sub-continent, to which Doris Duke was clearly exposed, and which formed a clear part of Gandhi’s vision for an independent and self-sustaining India. The heiress was evidently very impressed with Gandhi and may have found his visionary promotion of crafts revival and rural industry at their meeting compelling.  Newspaper reports in the United States over the next year made explicit reference to the commission as an effort to revitalize the dying crafts of India.  Even from the pages of history, it is difficult to ignore Gandhi’s fervent belief in and promotion of crafts and rural industry revival as a potential solution to rural poverty, and to enrich a sense of positive artistic and national identity.  The complex tapestry of circumstance must include some consideration of this meeting and its impact.  And although Doris Duke’s own artistic vision was one of luxury and opulence – a far cry from the poverty of rural India – the support of artisans would likely have pleased the Mahatma, who wrote as early as 1919 that the rare industrial arts and handicrafts of India “merely require due recognition and encouragement”.

The master bathroom at Shangri La, commissioned from F.B. and C.G. Blomfield in 1935.               David Franzen 1999. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i.

Following the Cromwells’ path, my own visit also took me then to the busy city of Agra, to discover information on the artisans and inlay workshops the couple encountered, and to explore the historic Mughal monuments they visited.  From there, I returned to Delhi, to seek out Gandhi’s own writings in the National Archives and private libraries.  And I was able to survey for a final time the opulent monuments of the emperor Shah Jahan’s great Mughal city of Shahjahanabad and identify further design prototypes for the Shangri La inlaid panels.  Yielding good results in these quests, both in Agra and Delhi, I am now completing the full write-up of a paper, presenting my findings for submission to the Shangri La Working Papers in Islamic Art Series.  The complex web of inspiration and circumstance that surrounds Doris Duke’s first commission as artisanal patron has led me from one side of the globe to another, from the tranquility of Shangri La and the Hawaiian islands, to the bustle of the cities of northern India.  A trail that for Doris Duke, too, became a familiar pilgrimage as she pursued what became a lifelong fascination with the Indian sub-continent and its cultural history.

United Kingdom, January 2012

My grateful thanks to Deborah Pope and everyone who so kindly welcomed me at Shangri La, and to the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art in their generous sponsorship and support of this research and residency at Shangri La.  My thanks also to Dr T Karunakaran, Mr Khushal and Miss Sushma for their kind reception at Wardha, and for showing me around the Institute and Museum buildings with such enthusiasm and generosity with their time.

About the Guest Author: Thalia Kennedy was a Scholar-in-Residence at Shangri La from September 4-27, 2011. Kennedy is the former Director of the Turquoise Mountain Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture based in Kabul, Afghanistan. She is a specialist in Islamic and South Asian art and architecture and has held visiting lectureships at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Institute of Ismaili Studies, and the School of Oriental & African Studies in London. While in residence at Shangri La, Kennedy conduct research on Shangri La’s Mughal Suite, commissioned in Delhi in 1935, and related collections, which will culminate in an academic paper on her findings. She also presented an illustrated public lecture The Mughal Bedroom Suite at Shangri La at the Honolulu Academy of Arts Doris Duke Theatre on September 18, 2011.