During our recent trip to San Francisco, I visited the Asian Art Museum, a museum that I visited previously two years ago. At the time, I thought that this museum was one of the best museums I’ve visited. Since then, I’ve had the chance to visit a lot of other world-class museums, including The Louvre, The Frick, The Whitney, the Musee d’Orsay, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Guggenheim, The Met, and the NY Museum of Modern Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Tate Britain (unfortunately, I never got around to blogging about my visits to these last two). I don’t think the Asian Art Museum is quite in the same league as these others, but it’s still a great museum and well worth a visit.

The museum is housed in a great building. I took a picture of it on my way in:

Asian Art Museum

It’s across the street from City Hall with a green space in between. The building is well designed to display the artworks within it. Overall, I thought the rooms were well proportioned and that the works of art were arranged to maximum educational and aesthetic effect.

My favorite part of the museum is its collection of Ganeshas. Here’s an example from the museum’s website, which is an excellent resource for information about the collections and individual works of art:

As I’ve mentioned on my blog previously, I love images of Ganesha. This is one of the few museums that I’ve been to that features several images of this deity, all of which are interesting. Here’s the label that accompanies this particular statue of Ganesha:

Below Ganesha’s right foot is the rodent that serves as his animal mount. Ganesha once battled a powerful demon who had been terrorizing the gods. Using one of his tusks, which had broken during the struggle, he speared the demon, who was then transformed into a rodent and brought under Ganesha’s control. Because it can find a way through the most daunting of barriers, the rodent is an appropriate vehicle for Ganesha, who has the power to create and remove obstacles. Some of Ganesha’s hand gestures in this sculpture, in addition to his swaying posture and his entourage of musicians, indicate that he is dancing.

You can find the original (and additional information) here.

I especially like that the labels, like this one, that accompany individual works and the audio tour that directs your attention to selected items both explain such details as the meaning of the placement of Ganesha’s (or any other god’s or prophet’s) hands or the significance of objects in the background of a particular sculpture. I value museums that are informative and teach me about the works I’m seeing; the Asian Art Museum does an excellent job doing this.

In visiting the museum this time, I was also drawn to its collection of artworks representing the god Shiva, who is often represented with phallic symbols, like this one:

I guess that all religions are penis-obsessed to one degree or another!

The museum is heaviest on Buddhist art, so anyone even remotely interested in Buddhism will be fascinated by its collection. I had no idea that Buddhism spread so far throughout Asia; this collection really impressed me with both the scope of Buddhism’s influence but also the variations on it as it moved into different regions and nationalities.

Overall, this is an extremely strong and interesting museum. The exhibits on jade work were very educational — I had no idea how difficult jade is to sculpt. There is also an interesting collection of Chinese paintings. Seeing them next to one another like this really emphasizes the variations of Chinese painting, something you can’t get from a smaller collection.

My only complaint about the museum is that I wished more of the items were included in the audio tour, which only covers about 50 artworks. This collection is so strong and so interesting that I wanted learn about even more of the works. One feature of the audio tour that I especially liked is that you can hear more about the various religious traditions from which the artworks emerge — if you want to know more about Buddhism, for example, you can just punch in the correct number and hear a mini-lecture about the history and beliefs of this religion.

As a specialty museum, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco is one of the most interesting and enjoyable museums I’ve visited. I highly recommend it.

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