Seeking the Buddha in the Museum's Collection
Serinity Young and Kate Bollinger
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FIGURE. Catalog No: 70.0/7064

The Buddha Project compiled objects that depict the Buddha from the anthropology department's Asian archives into a searchable database. While a seemingly straightforward task, the project was complicated in at least two ways. AMNH possesses a collection of thousands of Asian objects; some were donated, others purchased by curators, and quite a number gathered during late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century expeditions sponsored by AMNH. Being an ethnographic enterprise, this meant that works of art were gathered at the same time as weapons, agricultural tools, clothing, botanical and biological samples, and so on. While the museum has obtained some outstanding examples of art, for the most part the collection is composed of objects made for widespread distribution and popular use. Since the objects were collected under a variety of circumstances, their dates and provenance are often unknown. Such objects are dated from the year the museum received them. Secondly, it was necessary to determine what, exactly, constitutes a Buddha image and what does not. Elaboration of this topic has the advantage of both clarifying the Buddha database for potential researchers as well as exploring the more theoretical question, with which this project grappled, of what constitutes a Buddha image and why. The goal of this essay is both to introduce the American Museum of Natural History's Buddha Project database as a research tool and to provide a more theoretical discourse on its contents.

The Buddha Project contains a total of 1,038 images of objects drawn from the museum's Asia archives - an electronic database of images of objects from the American Museum of Natural History's Asia collection. The images represent a diverse spectrum of Buddhist iconography, differing by time period, country acquired, mode of representation of the Buddha, and object type. This diversity of images within the Buddha Project database can be attributed to the particular method used to search the Asia archives for Buddha images. The database is catalogued by an ever-growing number of keywords running into the thousands. Each image is linked to one or more keywords relevant to its physical attributes or function. By sifting through every image in each keyword for potential Buddha images, the search revealed a huge array of Buddha images for possible inclusions into the Buddha Project. For example, searching through the keyword "crowns" revealed images of the Buddha on Tibetan crowns worn by monks during rituals (e.g., 70.0/4492). More obviously, the keyword "figurines" brought many small statues of the Buddha. While most of the images are clear representations of the Buddha and were therefore obvious additions to the database, other images, symbolic representations of the Buddha, required more detailed analysis and justification before including them in the database.

Four major events depicted in Buddha iconography - his conception, enlightenment, first sermon and death - are examples of images which may show the Buddha symbolically rather than anthropomorphically. The Buddha's enlightenment, for example, can be represented by the Bo Tree, his first sermon by a wheel, and his death by a burning funeral pyre without a visible body. Such images are often found at pilgrimage sites, where stone carvings were created which depicted either four or eight scenes of primary events from the Buddha's life including those described above. Such pilgrimage sites include monasteries, temples, and stupas - solid architectural structures believed to contain bodily relics of the Buddha and other holy persons. Since stupas, themselves, are often believed to be physical representations of the Buddha they, too, have been included into the Buddha Project. Catalog No. 70.0/4600 is one example of a stupa in the database.

While a good deal of attention has been paid to the importance and variety of symbolic representations of the Buddha, it is also significant, and potentially advantageous to researchers, to highlight the diverse and surprising variety of objects which were found to contain images of the Buddha in his human form which are also included into the Buddha Project. The variety of human forms of the Buddha found in the database, and also the variety of objects on which he is depicted, is demonstrative of the span of Asian countries and time periods from which these objects were collected. Examples of such images are, a Tibetan ritual dagger with a Buddha image carved onto the handle (Catalog No. 70.0/5253), a Thai painting showing the Buddha in his past life as Prince Vessantara (Catalog No. TL/355 A4), and a Chinese snuff bottle with a painting of the Buddha on its inside (Catalog No. 70.3/2126 AB).

Beyond this, there are many images of celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, some of whom are female, as well as images of important religious teachers like Padmasambhava (eight century C.E.), who is considered a second Buddha, and Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), who was considered to have been a living Buddha. Additionally, representations of arhats, enlightened followers of the Buddha, are also considered Buddha figures. Our goal was to cast our net widely in the collection and then choose representational images from among the richly populated Buddhist pantheon.

Included with each image in the database is general information regarding the object's country of origin, material, dimensions, and collection information. Scanned copies of the original catalogue page and expedition field notes, as recorded when the object was initially acquired, are also available for many of the images. The Buddha Project database can be freely accessed online and images searched for via various search options including culture, catalog number, object name, or keyword. A 'Refine Search' text box can be used to narrow the search.

The database was designed as a tool for researchers, who can apply for more thorough access to the collection as well as the ability to comment upon particular images and the information provided about them. Please refer to the Research Access Policy to apply for your account.

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