Observation of The Rubin Museum of Art

I’ve never heard about The Rubin Museum until I had a conversation about cultural differences between Taiwan and China with my English Literature Professor Terri Bennett. After the interesting conversation with Professor Terri, I’ve decided to choose The Rubin Museum of Art to do my observation due to cultural, religious, and political related reasons. I was really excited to see how different audience behaves in such place that I defined as a “controversial museum”.


Understand how the visitors from different backgrounds (includes culture, nationalities, and even ethnicities) behave or interact with the artworks in The Rubin Museum of Art. Below are something I’d like to know from this observation:
1. Rough demographic of the visitor (age, ethnicity, gender)
2. General behavior when browsing all artworks between Asian visitors and others
3. Interaction with the installation in “The Shrine Room” on the fourth floor.

Brief intro of The Rubin Museum of Art

The Rubin Museum is a museum that aims to “stimulate learning, promotes understanding, and inspires personal connections to the ideas, cultures, and art of Himalayan regions (The Rubin Museum, 2018)” by displaying collections of Himalayan arts.

Brief intro of “The Shrine Room”

“The Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room evokes the aesthetics and atmosphere of a traditional Tibetan sacred space and offers visitors the opportunity to experience Tibetan religious art in its cultural context (The Rubin Museum, 2018).” This is actually not a “room”, it’s more like an open space with a fence to prevent visitors get too close to the installation.

These results are based on a three-hours long observation I did on Oct 26th, from 6:00 pm-9:00 pm. The Rubin had a free admission opening night for the renewed art installation called “The Shrine Room” on the fourth floor. All results might not be able to represent the general phenomena of The Rubin.


1. There were only a small amount of visitors are Asian (Only 3-4 Asian per visit group, each group has around 45-50 visitors). Most of the Asian visitors are female (Oftentimes there was only one man in the Asian visit group, each group has 3-4 visitors).
2.  Most visitors who are not Asian tend to take close-up photos for art objects like the statues of the deity. Asian visitors are opposite, few of them even pray to the statues of the deity.

The Shrine Room:

There were three types of visitors during that three hours:
a. Believer/disciple-they either prayed with beads or special hand
b. The curious ones-they just came and sat on one of the eight chairs in
    front of the art setting.
c. Selfie lover/Social media enthusiast-they took selfies with the
   “art installation”, and some of them upload to social media.
2. Believer/disciple are most likely female, across the races/ethics.
3. Staying time is 15-20 min for almost every group of people, no matter
     they came for praying/meditating, taking selfies, or just sitting.
4. Most of the visitors who took the seats in front of the installation did not
     cross their legs, and did not even slightly open their legs. My assumption
     of this posture is the audiences were aware of the installation is solemn
     from a religious aspect.


1. Broad stating “Buddhist art” to “Himalayan art” doesn’t justify the misperception of The Rubin Museum of Art.
If you check the definition of Himalayan art online, no matter from academic resources or Wikipedia, the strong connection between Himalayan art and Buddhist art is undeniable. In this case, the way to display artworks and do storytelling need to handle with care, otherwise, the outcome might be misleading toward to a religious display in a disrespectful manner. When The Rubin claimed they did try to avoid creating a “faux Tibetan temple”, I can’t really find the supporting pieces of evidence while browsing their available collections. As a Taiwanese Buddhist (Which is highly influenced by Chinese Buddhism, it combines both Taoism and Confucianism), how the exhibits display in The Rubin bother me a lot for three major reasons:

A. No comprehensive review or introduction of all collection they display-
This brought up a cultural related issue: the misperception of the so-called “Himalayan art”, and how other types of Buddhists perceive the collections in The Rubin Museum. My Buddhism culture oftentimes sees religious art creations as a solemn representation of god’s wellness. Unlike Himalaya Buddhism, we worship the sculptures/paintings of deity, the mysterious powers are in those”solemn objects”. The daily ritual practice is to pray in front of those”solemn objects”, any disrespectful behavior would cause some serious punishment by the deity. The relationship between believers and the “solemn objects ” is pretty restricted to a top-down affiliation from a religious aspect, and this might be the major difference between Taiwanese/Chinese Buddhism and Himalayan Buddhism, but there is no emphasis on the differences in The Rubin as a comprehensive overview of it’s “Himalayan art” collection. I assume people have a similar religious background like me would misinterpret those art objects with existing understanding, and might not willing to visit at all.

B. Major collection/display generate a strong religious vibe like a temple-the major collection are paintings and sculptures, only a few other types of “Himalayan art” like masks or photographs are collected and displayed in the museum. The deity paintings or sculpture are the main objects of traditional ritual practice. If a place displays religious paintings or sculptures mostly without a proper storytelling or introduction, it would more likely to be treated as a “temple-like” space, I will share my findings with photos as supporting evidence later.
C. Lack of deep understanding of broad Buddhism culture leads to a weird contemporary “Himalayan art” outcome- there were some animated arts put Buddha and other main Buddhism figures into neon arts with some crazy cartoon-ish images. Not sure it’s because of cultural difference or other superstitious reasons, it’s pretty rare in Asia to see artist “play with” the Buddha figures. Often times people are afraid of this kind of recreation since that could consider as a disrespectful behavior and would receive a curse as a punishment. I personally feel so uncomfortable about those type of artworks, and I doubt if the museum ever considers their audience might interpret the artworks like me or not.

The Shrine Room experience is the most tricky part to me. I can’t define it as a type of recreation to provide an immersive visit experience like an “artwork”, or, it represents a type of preservation of religious art and culture. I am more tend to believe that’s a preservation, to showcase how it looks like in Himalaya’s family house, and what’s the vibe. The reason why I don’t consider The Shrine Roon as a recreation artwork, it’s because there is no obvious storytelling or blending any contemporary art factor into it.
I read that as an authentic religious display room instead of an artwork. In this case, if we see The Shrine Room as a preservation project, then I tend to agree with what Cloonan mentioned in the W(h)ither Preservation article “Preservation must be approached not only as a set of technical solutions to technical problems, but also as a more complex concept that includes social dimensions (Cloonan, 2001).” Which The Shrine Room might fail from the social aspect- it doesn’t tell a comprehensive story about the cultural, but a showroom to showcase those different objects that been used as tools in a religious ritual. This might attract the audience who just like to explore “interesting things” and don’t care about the context (for example, the visitors just took selfies and shared it to social media without knowing the culture behind this installation).

Also, the way The Rubin Museum displays The Shrine Room as an installation without the ritual, might change how the audience interprets such display as a still sacred home-deco, not a place to execute the ritual, which misses the whole context of this room. It’s already easy to change how we interpret an object over time, it would be way easier to lose the whole meaning without a proper introduction of a preservation. If “the primary goal of preservation is to prolong the existence of cultural property (Cloonan, 2001),” in order to preserve the cultural aspect, we should include the ritual or the life with the room to showcase the “culture”, not just the objects.
The whole observation was really intense for me, I can somehow to relate why there were just a few Asian visitors during the observation. The whole museum doesn’t provide a comprehensive introduction for the collections as art collections, because the museum tries to portray all those objects collections from a pure art aspect, which is impossible, since the reason why all the creation are made is to serve as a religious tool (most of the time). The Shrine Room is just not a good example as either an art installation or preservation, I’d prefer to showcase the ritual or any activity that involves those objects digitally, in order to preserve the whole “culture”, so the meaning of the preservation would really “to prolong the existence of cultural property (Cloonan, 2001).” And that’s what I think the true value of displaying all these collections.

Related Resources

  1. “About the Museum” The Rubin Museum of Art, 30 Nov. 2018,  http://rubinmuseum.org/about
  2. “The Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room” The Rubin Museum of Art, 30 Nov. 2018,  http://rubinmuseum.org/events/exhibitions/the-tibetan-buddhist-shrine-room
  3. Michele Valerie Cloonan.“W(H)ITHER PRESERVATION?”  The Library Quarterly, Vol 71(2), 231-242, 2001

Event: National Design Award 2018 Winner’s Salon- Humen Experience/Built Environment

The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum is my all time favorite, not just because of the well-curated collections or exhibitions, but the great museum experience design impresses me as well. When I searched online for events, the Cooper Hewitt Museum popped up in my head and that’s how I found this salon event as part of the National Design Award Week 2018. The 2018  National Design Award aims to honor excellent and innovative American design, and also seeks to raise awareness of the impact of design in the education sector (“National Design Award”, 2018). National Design Awards 2018 included a bunch of activities, such as workshops led by Award-winning designers, exhibitions, panel talks, and salon events. Because of my landscape architecture design background and my interest in designing for human beings, I chose to attend the “Human Experience/Built Environment” salon.


This event invited four National Design Award winners to share their creative /collaborative process for designing human experiences, challenges while designing, and the relationships between the built environment and designers (“2018 National Design Awards | Winners’ Salon & Master Classes”, 2018). Four award-winning teams/individuals are from different backgrounds. It’s a combination of a creative author, a furniture designer, an architect and an interior designer.


The salon started with inviting winners to share the creative process of their design works. Anne Whiston Spirn shared her process from an author perspective as the starting point. She is a person who would always start with an observation through her own eyes or the frame in the camera. She believes observation could reveal many things that you might ignore in your day-to-day life, for example,  a buried river in the city or any other invisible forces that support human’s life. By doing so, observation can actually uncover the truth and yell us more about how life is lived. She will also talk to locals while observing in order to get the overall picture as a whole context. Michael Manfredi, the architect who represents WEISS/MANFREDI,  added that his way of doing environmental design by talking to the local communities before even starts to sketch anything. When starting a new project, he would always keep “humanity” in mind, and reminds himself to be a person that knows nothing but eager to learn from and interact with communities. Chad Oppenheim from Oppenheim Architecture + Design tends to initiate the process from a childlike perspective. He goes to the site, wanders around and explores the environment like a boy back in the time when there was no Xbox and Gameboy. This approach helps him to discover the relationship between nature and humans, so he can really design for human experiences. Lastly, unlike other designers in this talk, as a furniture designer, John Christakos, the product designer of Blu Dot, oftentimes discusses with his partners about what piece of furniture they should design in the very beginning. Then they will sketch as a team to iterate the design work until the design goes to prototyping. That’s the reason why they never mark any of the design pieces as an individual work.


Manfredi mentioned how climate change impacts his consideration of spatial design as an architect. In the past, architects or urban planners didn’t really have to consider how to deal with the life-threatening storms, except in a waterfront neighborhood. But now, it has become a baseline requirement when designing spaces. He also shared how he collaborated with local dog owner communities in order to design a great dog park. His team facilitated a conversation of the local dog community, so each dog owner group could voice their opinion, and exchange their thoughts at the same time. After the conversation, the team sketched the park based on the discussion, then presented to the groups in order to receive valuable feedback. When the park was built and finally open to the public, the dog community was really satisfied with the outcome.


1. Collaborating with communities is the key to designing good human experiences.

In my opinion, the spatial design discipline might be the pioneer of “user experience design.” For instance, when I studied landscape architecture design in college, to go on a field trip for observation already became a “must-have” process when designing a space. The purpose of going on a field trip is to understand the relationship between space/environment and the people. During the trip, designers are required to get to know about the local community as much as possible. Designers can either talk to local people directly, live with them for a few days, or just participate in local events. These methods will enable designers to discover the problems affecting an area, then explore the opportunity for solutions. Thus, it’s pretty common for architects/landscape architects to interact with communities and this “interaction” has even become part of the key process of spatial design.

Outside of the spatial design field, I feel designers tend not to have many interactions with communities (no matter if it’s a geographical community like a neighborhood, or a group of people that share something in common like small dog lovers). For example, when I worked as a UX designer, I did interact with “users” or “target audiences”, but the scale was smaller and it was more l goal-driven (wanted to know their devices usage patterns ), or task-driven (tested usability before releasing a new feature) approach.

So when Sasha Costanza-Chock wants designers to rethink the design processes in her article” Design Justice: Towards an Intersectional Feminist Framework for Design Theory and Practice”, that recalled my memory as a landscape architecture design student instantly. In her article, she encourages designers to address the challenges of communities by applying collaborative, creative methods as part of the design process, and to be a “people first” designer (Costanza-Chock 2).

When one of the winners, Whiston Spirn, works on her projects in West Philadelphia, she collaborates with locals by treating locals as experts based on their lived experiences. Her team focuses on building a sustainable, community-led living environment by inviting locals to share their knowledge and teaching them about landscape literacy. In her design process, designers are more like facilitators than experts. The other winner Manfredi, invites people  who will be impacted directly in the future to join the design discussion. He wants to create an environment in which designed is based on the prioritized impacts for the community. These methods actually match the framework mentioned by Costanza-Chock in the Design Justice article. No wonder the final design outcomes were engaging and resident friendly, and even won the prizes.

2.Lack of diversity in design industry

When I first saw the winners in front of the audience, I was a bit disappointed. Three of the four winners are male, and there were no people of color except white people, nor people with disabilities. I thought the topic is about designing human experiences in America, a place that is full of diverse cultures, languages, and people, which should lead the topic to accommodate various needs and situations that are more inclusive. This fact reminds me of Jennifer Vinopal’s article about diversity in library staffing (“The Quest for Diversity in Library Staffing” 2016). She brought up the issue about “lacking in diversity based on race and ethnicity, age, disability, educational background, gender identity, sexual orientation, and other demographic differences” (“The Quest for Diversity in Library Staffing” 2016). Vinopal’s finding could actually apply to almost all work fields, including design disciplines. Her intention to raise the awareness of lack of diversity in the workplace aims to combat “the oppression that is caused by privilege, bias, and the attendant power differentials at no matter individual or systematic levels” (“The Quest for Diversity in Library Staffing” 2016).

Incorporating every possible role to every work field seems a bit impossible for now, and I am not sure if this is a good approach to solve the problem. When we discussed difficult heritage a few weeks ago, I defended Maya Lin’s design of Vietnam Veterans Memorial by stating “designers don’t necessarily have to be part of the group they design for”, because she was being accused as an unqualified designer due to her role as an “outsider” (meaning that there is no Vietnam veterans in her family). In this case, because the objective is controversial, the interpretation of the memorial is always different for each individual, and it’s hard to find a Vietnam veteran who has the skillset, and also who is not suffering from Post-traumatic stress disorder to design this monument. Therefore I don’t think this approach works here. However, there should be a better way to address the lack of diversity issue in every work field. Costanza-Chock already initiated the solution by applying a doable design framework to improve not only the design process but also the final outcome of the design. Whiston Spirn does co-work with the communities for over decades and the result is amazingly impactful in a good way. There would definitely be more good solutions to accommodate this issue.

This event raises my awareness of two topics: design justice and work field diversity. Some of the practitioners in design disciplines already integrate similar methods into their work process to make the design more welcoming and accomondable in most situations. We should make this notion more wide spread through to different disciplines to make this change happen.


  1. “2018 National Design Award – About The Awards.” Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 31 Oct. 2018, https://www.cooperhewitt.org/national-design-awards/
  2. “2018 National Design Award Winners.” Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 31 Oct. 2018, https://www.cooperhewitt.org/national-design-awards/2018-national-design-awards-winners/
  3. COSTANZA-CHOCK, Sasha.“Design Justice: Towards an Intersectional Feminist Framework for Design Theory and Practice.”  Design Research Society 2018 Catalyst, 25th-28th, June, 2018
  4. Vinopal, Jennifer.”The Quest for Diversity in Library Staffing.” In The Library With The Lead Pipe, 2016, http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2016/quest-for-diversity/