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Tibetan Canon from Harvard-Yenching Library to be Exhibited at Museum of Fine Arts

Tibetan Canon from Harvard-Yenching Library to be Exhibited at Museum of Fine Arts! The exhibit opens on November, 16.

The story of a Tibetan Buddhist canon—that dates back to 1410—from the Harvard-Yenching Library finding its way the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston is intricate and enigmatic.

An exhibit on Chinese Lacquer from 1200 to 1800 at the MFA featuring the Harvard-Yenching Library’s volume opens on November 16. According to Xiohe Ma, librarian for the Chinese Collection at the Harvard-Yenching Library, he and a number of his colleagues discovered two unique Tibetan Buddhist canons while searching through boxes of not-yet cataloged items within their collection a few years ago. According to a note that accompanied two volumes, they dated back to 1410 and were among 12 copies of the Tibetan Buddhist canons to have survived the many changes in dynasties in China.

“The 12 volumes disappeared after the Boxer Revolution in Beijing in 1900,” Ma said. “They were later discovered in The Museum of Hamburg in West Germany. Harvard negotiated with a professor in Germany to purchase two of the 12 volumes.

The volumes are now catalogued in HOLLIS (, and it has become well-known among museum circles that Harvard holds two of the rare editions. Before one of the books was installed in the Museum of Fine Arts, Katherine Beaty, book conservator for the Weissman Preservation Center, treated the 30-pound volume. It was in very good condition,” Beaty said. “The volume only required minor surface cleaning, and few page repairs.”

Beauty explained that these Tibetan books are just huge stacks of paper, unbound, but sandwiched between two boards. Often the edges of the pages are painted, revealing an image when the books are closed. To read the book, a Buddhist monk sits in front of the horizontal stack, flipping the pages over, creating a new stack page by page.

The second of Harvard’s two Tibetan canons was recently exhibited at the Rubin Museum in New York and is now on exhibition at Cornell University’s Johnson Museum of Art .

“This is part of our outreach to make our collections better known to researchers beyond Cambridge,” said Raymond Lum, Librarian for Western Languages at the Harvard-Yenching Library. “We are delighted that two venerable Boston-area institutions—the MFA and the Harvard Library—have cooperated to give this 15th-century treasure a wider viewing in the broader context of the Museum’s exhibition.”
The exhibit opens at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts on November 16.

Read more about the upcoming exhibit on the Museum of Fine Arts’ website here:

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