Natural History Museum Opens New Exhibit on Sikhs

Posted July 21, 2004 at 3:17pm

Artwork and artifacts spanning some 300 years of Sikh history will be unveiled to the public — many for the first time — on Saturday as part of the National Museum of Natural History’s “Sikhs: Legacy of the Punjab” exhibit.

The show, on view indefinitely, includes more than 100 works, ranging from arms and armor to sacred texts and musical instruments, illuminating the heritage of the 500-year-old religion.

Sikhism “is an area we were not strong in and we were very anxious to make up for that,” said Paul Taylor, director of the museum’s Sikh Heritage Project and curator of Asian, European and Middle Eastern Ethnology at the Smithsonian.

In December 2000, after the launch of the Sikh Heritage Project, Taylor and prominent Sikhs traveled to India to consult with Sikh leaders in New Delhi on “how they would like to see themselves represented” and to inquire about the possibility of borrowing artifacts from the Indian government for a possible show since the Smithsonian “actually had almost none.”

Ultimately, however, the artifacts were assembled from “a large number of American collections,” including that of Narinder Kapany, founder and chairman of the Sikh Foundation, with some pieces commissioned especially for the exhibit from India.

Among the show’s highlights is a scale model of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India — Sikhism’s most holy site — replete with gold leaf. The temple’s construction, Taylor said, was overseen by a structural engineer who traveled back and forth between India and Boston “to make sure it was being … correctly” erected.

“It got a lot of press coverage in India as it was being done,” said Taylor, noting that its use of plastic and LED lights to create the illusion of a pool around the temple contributed to a resulting work that “was a mix of folk art” and the “contemporary.”

Also of interest, Taylor said, is a set of 19th-century miniature water color portraits rendered on ivory, which depict the family and court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

“These are magnificent,” he said.

While the exhibit is planned as part of the new Asian hall slated for the museum’s second floor, Taylor said some artifacts would appear on a rotating schedule because of concerns over the effects of prolonged light exposure.

“Every six months you’ll see a slightly different exhibit on the same theme,” he said.

Indeed, due to construction at the museum, the exhibit itself will change locations in the coming years.

“Our brand new guide puts it up on the second floor, where it’s supposed to go in the long term, but it’s actually opening downstairs … on the first floor,” Taylor said, adding that it should take up residence on its intended floor by summer 2006.

Curator Taylor will be on hand to discuss the exhibit’s themes in a lecture titled “Sikhs: Legacy of the Punjab” from noon to 1 p.m Friday in the museum’s Baird Auditorium. On Saturday, the fourth annual “Sikh Heritage Lectures” will be held from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., also in the Baird Auditorium. For more information about the exhibit and related activities, go to www.mnh.si.edu.