Altgeld museum houses treasures

By Sara Adams

Walking into the Burmese art exhibit of the newly-renovated Altgeld Hall, the fresh scent of the building lingers around the 19th-century artwork on display. The low lighting throughout the exhibit gives the figures an eerie life-like quality. The only sounds that follow you through the maze of glass cabinets are the sounds of your own feet on the hollow wooden floors and soft Burmese music in the distance.

The kinnari and kinnara, a pair of winged monumental figures covered in a mosaic of colored glass, greet visitors as they step inside. The figures appear to be dancing, adorned with red, green and blue pieces of mirrored glass all over their gold-dusted bodies.

Further into the exhibit, past several statues of Buddha, visitors can find detailed religious hangings made from dark textiles, appliquéd jewels, sequins, glass beads and metallic threads.

These are just some of the artifacts patrons can find inside the Burmese art exhibit in Altgeld Hall.

“I think museums tell the story of our civilizations,” said NIU President John Peters. “And right here in Altgeld Hall students and community members can learn about that culture.”

The exhibit is a part of the Center for Burmese Studies, which has been a part of the NIU community since 1986.

“The Center for Burmese Studies here is world class,” Peters said. “Any university in the country would be proud to have it.”

NIU’s 1,000-piece collection is one of the largest of Burmese art in the United States. About 60 pieces are on display.

Toward the back of the exhibit, carved ivory tusks sit on either side of a Buddha statue, which is a common tradition in Burmese temples. The tusks display the 28 predecessors of the historical Buddha, and frame a Buddha statue seated in the ”varada mudra” or giving posture.

In the furthest room of the exhibit, museum patrons can find a pair of statues representing the fierce evil spirit Bilu from Burmese folklore. According to folklore, Bilu was thought to bring bad luck, disease and famine. But when Bilu heard the words of Buddha, it renounced its evil ways and began worshipping Buddha. This is why Bilu statues are placed at the foot of Buddha’s altar in a humble position in Buddhist temples.

Michelle Ramirez, a senior studio art major, works at the museum as part of a work study program. Her favorite pieces on display are the Naga Roof Brackets placed over the entrance of the museum.

“It’s so beautiful – when you’re walking into the hallway, it’s like you’re entering a different place,” Ramirez said.

Although admission to the museum is free, Ramirez said only an average of about five people visit the exhibit daily.

“I wish more people would come in because it’s such a beautiful collection,” she said.

The exhibit has been available to the public in Altgeld since October, Ramirez said, and is expected to remain available until May.