A previous post suggests that museum collections often involve ‘misattribution, mistaken identity, or simply mistakes’. When an object travels from one place to another, it can easily be misidentified as a result of cultural differences. But is this a ‘mistake’, or something more? Can the mistaken identity of an object also carry on and embody a new identity? I suggest that an ivory statue of Guanyin contained in a carriage clock case at MAA presents the possibility of a dual identity when embodying two social meanings at the same time.
Whilst browsing the MAA catalogue for my MPhil dissertation, I came across the ivory statue of Guanyin from China. It is described in the Museum’s Accession Register as a ‘fossil ivory statue of Guanyin, holding infant’. The catalogue card of the statue describes:
‘One fossil ivory statuette of the Buddha’
‘In fact it looks more like an oriental representation of the Virgin and Child. In a leather case’.
Who is Guanyin and why are they associated with the Virgin Mary?
观音菩萨 (Guanyin) is the Chinese version of Avalokitesvara, a Bodhisattva who is considered a deity of mercy and compassion. A Bodhisattva is someone who has reached the path toward nirvana and Buddhahood but chooses to remain in the world to alleviate its suffering. Avalokitesvara (or Guanyin) is one of many Bodhisattvas being widely worshipped across Buddhism, but often misunderstood to be a Buddha.
The image of Guanyin initially appeared as a male or gender-neutral figure when Buddhism was introduced in China. As the deity represents mercy and compassion, its depiction gradually transformed. During the Tang (618-907 CE) and the Song Dynasties (960-1279 CE), the image of Guanyin became predominantly female. This particular image of Guanyin holding an infant, 送子观音 (Songzi Guanyin), is an example of a common depiction of the deity’s feminine compassion and symbolises fertility.
To those unfamiliar with Buddhism and the figure of Guanyin, its feminine depiction can easily be associated with that of the Madonna and Child. Comparing the two images, Kevin D. Pham at the MET suggests that both represent concepts of ‘compassion, mercy, and love’, and in so doing, share similarities. It is possible thus that before the ivory statue of Guanyin was mislabelled at MAA, it was a common mistake for images of Guanyin to be misinterpreted as oriental representations of the Virgin and Child.
The ivory statue of Gunayin arrived in MAA in a leather case.
At first sight, this seemed to compare with other representations of Buddhist figures from East Asia that are housed in portable shrines with folding doors in which the image could travel and, when opened, be the object of devotion.
In the catalogue card, this leather case is described as a ‘19th-century carriage clock case’. It is also described in MAA’s Accession Register as a ‘rectangular, leather case, with clasp fastener at front and green velvet lining’. Although this leather case appears different from that of the 厨子 (Zushi, a Japanese portable shrine) shown above, it served and continues to serve the same function. However, the catalogue card was written by someone else, and perhaps at a later date, suggesting that it was not made to fulfil the role it now has had, that it was instead a carriage clock case.
An online search for ‘carriage clock case’ seems to support this statement. Its appearance matches carriage clock cases produced in Europe in the late-19th to early-20th centuries. Looking at the Guanyin statue with its case, more questions arise. While the ivory Guanyin and the leather case seem to have different provenances, at what point were they put together as a set of objects? Was the use of the clock case to contain the statue a conscious decision to imitate a portable shrine? Or did the case simply afford a convenient container for travel?
We might suppose that the ivory statue was created and used as Guanyin in China (the patina of the ivory suggests it has passed through many hands), and the box perhaps produced in Europe as a carriage clock case. Yet the ivory statue was associated with the figure of the Virgin and Child, and the carriage clock case was used as a portable shrine. Whilst the former association and the latter use were the result of accidental attributions and chance, the story becomes far more complex when the sources of both the objects are considered.
Both the ivory statue of Guanyin and the case were bequeathed from Reverend Dr. Alan Coates Bouquet, an Anglican parish priest and Lecturer in the History and Comparative Study of Religions at Cambridge. Bouquet was an alumnus of UCL, Trinity College, and Jesus College. He graduated with a Doctor of Divinity in 1922. During Bouquet’s lifetime, he published numerous theological books and articles. According to the biographical information from MAA, he retired in 1945 and travelled in India extensively. Bouquet passed away in 1976 and the ivory statue with the case was bequeathed to MAA with a series of other objects he collected.
Linking Bouquet as a collector and the ivory statue of Guanyin with the case, more mysteries arise: how did Bouquet acquire the Guanyin statue and the case? Did Bouquet ever travel to China? Looking at other artefacts from Bouquet’s bequest, it seems that most were brought back from continental Europe and India. Amongst the collection are another statue of Guanyin made of bamboo and a set of Chinese puppets made of rice paste acquired in China and India respectively.
MAA’s catalogue records suggest that Bouquet retired in 1945 and travelled extensively until his death in 1976. But during that period, China went through the Civil War, the Great Leap, and finally the Cultural Revolution. Considering these turbulent times, it is possible that Bouquet was never able to travel to China. So, the ivory statue of Guanyin with the case was probably acquired by him outside of the country. Could this be a gift from someone who travelled to China and presented to Bouquet as the Virgin Mary? Did anyone pray to this Guanyin as the Virgin Mary? The more information unfolds, the more questions arise.
Is the statue Guanyin or the Virgin Mary? Is the case a carriage clock case or a portable shrine? I suggest that the two objects performed both roles through their social life. The statue was made as a figure of Guanyin and the case as a carriage clock case. But since the former was considered an ‘oriental’ Virgin Mary and the latter a portable shrine, can these new attributions and social performances not be taken into consideration in defining the ontology of the two objects?
If we do so, then we move beyond thinking of objects as mislabeled, to thinking of the label as an embodiment of objects themselves. In this sense, the Guanyin statue can become the Virgin Mary and the Child, and the clock case can also become a portable shrine. Both objects can acquire and sustain these double identities throughout their life, and the multiple social contexts of Guanyin vs. the Virgin Mary and the Carriage Clock Case vs. the Portable Shrine coexist in both objects.