Story and photos by Barbara Angelakis

Rubin Museum Death Exhibit

The Rubin Museum of Art
150 West 17th
New York, New York 10011

The Rubin Museum has a new exhibition entitled “Death Is Not the End”.  This exhibition, assembled from the Rubin’s own collection, along with contributions from individual collectors and private institutions, is an examination of humanity’s burning questions surrounding life and death, and the desire for greater understanding of our place in the cosmos as expressed by two of the world’s greatest religions: Buddhism and Christianity. The exhibition is on view from March 17, 2023 to January 14, 2024.

Over the years, museums have expanded from simply exhibiting paintings and objects d’art into institutions for formidable investigations into society's foibles and fears. Case in point the recent exhibition in the Museum of Civilization in Quebec, Canada entitled “Oh Shit”, an exploration of bodily functions common to all living creatures (poop exhibit) or the opening exhibition at The Rubin in New York City entitled “Death Is Not The End”. These are two very different subjects but both have intense relevance for the human condition over and above the traditional need for beauty in our lives that museums often fill.

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The Rubin is a pearl of a museum located in the Chelsea section of New York City and dedicated to exploring and educating museum goers about the living art of Himalayan and Tibetan Art. Exquisite tapestries, sculptures, statues and artifacts from ancient times to the present cover the walls and display cases in a small but beautifully designed space.

The current exhibit delves into one of humanities deepest questions… what happens when we die? Is there an afterlife? What about heaven and hell? Is limbo a real state of being? Is there punishment for bad behavior or reward for a life well lived? This well planned exhibit shows how these questions are treated in the cross-cultural comparison of Tibetan Buddhism and Christian beliefs. This is by no means a comprehensive investigation including all major belief systems but instead narrowly focuses on these two primary examples.

The exhibition was curated by Senior Curator of Himalayan Art Elena Pakhoutova, around three major themes: The Human Condition, States In-Between, and the (After) Life. The first deals with our shared understanding regarding our physical mortality. The second deals with mythological concepts of limbo, purgatory, and bardo; while the third focuses on spiritual ideals surrounding resurrection, transformation and heaven.

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Featured are 58 objects spanning 12 centuries with some outlandishly beautiful objects, along with what we in the west, would think of as gruesome works of art.  There is a small painted terracotta sculpture of dancing skeletons (Tibet; 18th century) illustrating the impermanence of life while a large wall painting entitled “The Wheel of Life” illustrates the phases of our progress through life (Tibet; 19th century). There is also the Hieronymus Bosch (late 16th century) painting of “The Last Judgment” which depicts the horrors of hell and the penalties for sin. Both religious beliefs share the promise of transcendence to a better place for a life well-lived or offer the opportunity for further suffering to erase karma and move towards a better place. Both believe that suffering is inevitable; they differ in the time it takes for redemption.

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Since time immemorial man has faced these questions and found different religious and spiritual ways of dealing with them. At the end of the exhibit the focus is turned back onto the viewer and asks questions and invites responses which are then displayed. Questions such as “How does believing and not believing – in the afterlife impact how you live?” Or “What is rebirth to you?” Or “Describe your perfect afterlife” and finally, “Tell us how death might not be the end.” Some of the responses are revealing.

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This exhibit is not meant to solve the dilemma of what lies ahead for each and every one of us, but only to get the viewer to confront this uncomfortable topic for themselves and to be open to differing points of view.




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