Mongolia: Museum Highlights:
Important Works of Art from the Collections of the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts, Bogd Khan Palace Museum, and Choijin-Lama Temple Museum

Hal Fischer

Cultural Preservation Project for Mongolia 2005
A book review by Danny Yee © 2006
Most museums in Mongolia charge an additional fee — often ten times the normal entry fee — for those wanting to take photographs. Rather than taking low quality photos through dirty glass when visiting Ulaanbaatar museums, I used the money to buy Mongolia: Museum Highlights.

This covers fifty odd items from the three leading Ulaanbaatar museums, with colour photographs on the right hand pages facing description and commentary on the left. The items included are bronze figures, paintings on cotton, silk appliqué, wood and paper maché masks and figures, clothing, and vessels, with a small number of other forms — petroglyphs, a sword, earthenware.

As well as giving descriptions to complement the photographs, the commentary uses the items to illustrate broader aspects of Mongolian culture, religion, and history.

"The use of lotus petals on the lid, shoulder, and base of this vessel indicates that the craftsperson was influenced by Tibetan forms. The design concept of the ewer, however, is purely Mongolian. A cow surmounts the lid, the heads of the two rams decorate the overhead handle, and camels with open mouths form the spouts. A vertical wall divides the interior of the ewer into two parts, so that two separate beverages can be served.
The lives of the Mongols and their traditional economy rely on the horse, camel, bovines (yak and cattle), sheep, and goat. Three of these "five snouts" are depicted on this vessel. The horse provides mobility and airag, the fermented mare's milk that is the national beverage of Mongolia. The sheep, goats, and bovines are sources of food and wool, as well as fuel and shelter. The two-humped Bactrian camel is the beast of burden, providing transport on the trade routes."
It is particularly informative of Mongolian Buddhism, since most of the items are, or contain, religious symbols.
"Amoghasiddhi (Infallible Power) is the fifth of the transcendent buddhas. He sits on a moon-shaped disk placed on top of a lotus pedestal. His body is in the meditation posture, and his right hand is raised in the abhaya mudra (gesture of dispelling fear), with the left hand held delicately at waist level. Amoghasiddhi is the buddha of the north, and his associated color is green, representing active divine energy. His symbolic color, associated with the active principle, ties him to Green Tara, the beloved goddess of active compassion. Amoghasiddhi is generally not the object of independent worship, but is usually represented among numerous other figures in mandalas or in groups of the five transcendent buddhas, as with this work by Zanabazar."
There's also a brief introduction to each of the three museums.

Funded by a charitable project, Mongolia: Museum Highlights is an attractive, high quality publication, up to the highest standards of art books. A minor complaint is that B. Sharav's famous painting One Day in Mongolia should have been rotated, to make better use of the space and allow more detail to be shown. And the Cultural Preservation Project didn't get an ISBN for Museum Highlights, which may complicate obtaining a copy outside Mongolia.

March 2006

Related reviews:
- books about Buddhism + Buddhist history
- books about Central Asia + Mongolia
- books about art + art history