Into the Unknown: Theodore Bowie and “The Arts of Thailand”

Theodore R. Bowie, an art historian known for his work in what was at the time an underrepresented field – the history of Asian art- wore many hats during his time at Indiana University. A newly acquired and now-processed collection of Bowie’s papers containing a large number of photographs, letters, lecture notes, publications, and preparatory documents for perhaps the largest undertaking of his career, i.e. a 1960 exhibition named “The Arts of Thailand,” has allowed me a peek into the life of this prolific academic. Partially complete drafts of his memoir paint an inspiring picture of the man whose unflinching eagerness for professional involvement, passion for learning and travel, and unwavering confidence managed to bring the art of Thailand to the United States for the first time in history.

Cover of the softcover catalog for the 1960 opening of “The Arts of Thailand”

Originally educated and trained in the study of French literature, Bowie first displayed the nimbleness with which he moved through his career, throughout a multitude of academic positions and areas of expertise, when he moved into the discipline of art history. Bowie joined the Art Department as an associate professor at Indiana University in 1950. His relative lack of background in the field made him an uncertain candidate for tenure. Noticing his supervisor’s hesitancy in granting tenure, Bowie suggested his own installation as a librarian and guardian of the department’s new Fine Arts Library, a position which provided the ambitious and optimistic professor the opportunity to become involved in curating.

After mounting five shows dealing with the arts of Japan and China, in 1955 Bowie was approached by Henry Radford Hope on behalf of then-president Herman B Wells asking for a show demonstrating the art of Thailand. This request for a Thai art show came at a time when IU was one of multiple state schools participating in an exchange program with the Southeast Asian country. American universities sent faculty in a variety of disciplines and their families to Thailand for eighteen to twenty-four months and, in turn, Thailand sent undergraduate and graduate students to study at its partner universities. Bowie agreed to take on the immense task, despite having no knowledge of Thai art. After inquiring with the National Gallery in DC as a location to inaugurate the show, he was met with a polite but firm “no.” Although “The Arts of Thailand” would go on to travel to a number of large internationally recognized museums across the US, Western Europe, and Japan, contributing institutions agreed that the show would open, for the first time, in Bloomington, Indiana in 1960.

Promotional material for “The Arts of Thailand” at Indiana University.

For Bowie, the formation of his selection committee was critical in facing the large task that now confronted him. He brought on Kojiro Tomita, a specialist in Japanese art from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston; Alexander Griswold, an archaeologist and paleologist specializing in South Asian art; and Prince Subhadradis Diskul, the curator in chief of the national museum in Bangkok, to assist him in the project and teach him the ins and outs of Thai art. One of the few rules Bowie had in organizing the show was that none of the works were to be on loan from dealers, but rather from personal collections. A large number of the pieces featured, therefore, ended up coming from the collections of the Thai royal family. Bowie writes in his memoirs of the collectors hesitancy to let their best pieces travel, a cautiousness which was remedied by both Griswold’s personal connections and Bowie’s assertion that if Thailand wanted the global exhibition of its art to be on par with those of its East Asian neighbors, he would only accept the best.

Once the loans of the nearly three hundred and fifty works of art, many of which were large sculptural pieces, were secured, Bowie employed a Thai photographer to document them for the catalog. One of Bowie’s biggest challenges with the exhibition was transportation of the loaned pieces. As the show traveled around the world, Bowie was effectively responsible for each piece’s safety for the entire two years for which it toured. The pieces were stored in crates made from native Thai teakwood. During the entire duration of the shows global lifespan, the items were packed or unpacked over twenty times. Transported by large naval ships, the crates had to be stored on the top decks and protected from the elements, as opposed to in the more enclosed holds. This unique accommodation was necessitated by the sacred nature of a number of the items and the belief that to stand or walk above or on an image of the Buddha was sacrilegious. The Thai curators who accompanied the works abroad had never had the experience of traveling works of art across continents, and these logistical considerations provided additional job training and experience for them.

Pieces for the exhibition being transported using ships belonging to the US Navy.

On a local level, Bowie was confronted with the complication that what would become the IU Art Museum was still under construction (part of the present day Fine Arts Building)– a problem which he solved by creating a dynamic show spread across three locations: IU’s Auditorium, The Lilly Library, and the Art Center Gallery (what is now the Grunwald Gallery). The unconventional settings, although facilitating greater access and public engagement, presented security concerns, as the various locations were not equipped with surveillance or guards. The safety of the Thai art work was ensured, however, by a detachment of university ROTC officers who provided twenty-four hour security. The Auditorium held sculptures from a variety of periods, with many of the larger pieces having to be displayed on the floor because of their weight. The Art Center Gallery displayed paintings from the collection of the King of Thailand and theatrical masks, while the Lilly featured displays of Thai books, manuscripts, and richly decorated lacquer cabinets. A number of the visitors to these exhibition areas would have, on their way to other events on campus, stumbled across lobbies for the three exhibition areas decorated in vibrant silks and been enticed to stay and linger with the treasured pieces on display. Well-received by students, faculty, and administrators at IU “The Arts of Thailand” would prove to be a huge success with audiences throughout its two year run, and inspired both a film of the same name and a follow-up exhibition, “The Sculpture of Thailand,” in the 1970s. Recently digitized, the film is part of the IU Libraries Moving Image Archive and can be accessed here through Media Collections Online.

“Thai Arts Exhibition,” 1960 in the Art Center Gallery (now the Grunwald)

“The Arts of Thailand” was a massive undertaking for its time, fraught with a number of obstacles which Bowie seemed to blithely address in stride. Describing his mindset in undertaking the show, Bowie wrote:

 “I had hoped to talk about it to Henry [Radford Hope] and Herman B Wells, but alas Henry is gone and I will never know whether the thought had occurred to him that here was a non-existent museum, represented by a little known member of his Art Department who was not an authority on anything and had published nothing, who was generally (and loosely ) familiar with Far Eastern Art  but totally ignorant of Thai art, proceeding as an equal with some of the most important museums in the country to bring to this country and circulate a large collection of works of art of all kinds, easily deserving because of the scale and quantity of objects of the term “blockbuster,” …The odd thing is that at [the] time in question, about 1959, I was not in the least fazed by those duties that I had not applied for. I was, however, certain that I could carry it out as expected and never lose any sleep over the matter”

As an aspiring curator and a student pursuing my master’s in art history, the discovery of the life of Ted Bowie has been timely. Coming to the field of art history with, as a former studio major, what felt like less background than my cohort, was daunting. As I am again veering off in a different direction, away from academia and, hopefully, into the field of curating, I often find myself riddled with uncertainty. Starting the grueling process of applying for jobs, I find myself doubting my qualifications. Coming across Bowie’s words, and researching his life, one which progressed not in a straight and proscribed line, but in a joyous meander driven by his passions and ambitions, I am reminded that, perhaps, it is good to wear a few hats throughout one’s lifetime. Bowie’s brazen self-confidence has come as a perfect rallying cry, a reminder to question not whether we are capable, but rather what things we might be capable of.

An undated portrait of Bowie found in his personal archive – The Theodore Bowie Papers

Educating the Educators: The I.U.-Thailand Project

 

Course catalog for the College of Education, Bangkok, Thailand. (Indiana University Archives, C347, Box 2.)

Beginning in 1954 and lasting until 1962, Indiana University partnered with education officials in Thailand to bolster the country’s methods of education for new teachers. Working under a contract through the United States government, I.U. provided technical and financial assistance to Thai universities. The project’s overall goal was to “build an institution capable of providing educational experiences which would provide leadership sorely needed in Thailand’s effort to modernize its educational system” by preparing teachers to work in Thai schools, create instructional materials, and perform consultant and research work on problems in education.

The need for teachers with quality pedagogical training stemmed from the rapid expansion of the Thai education system. When Thailand passed its compulsory education law in 1921, the number of children enrolled stood at 241,508 students. By 1954, the year I.U. began offering assistance, the number had significantly risen to almost 2,900,000. While the large number of students was hailed for providing an education to a large number of Thai children, the rapidity meant “expansion was done at the expense of quality… preparation of teachers to teach in those schools.”

Dr. Robert Shaffer speaking at a conference in Thailand. (Indiana University Archives, Accn. No. 2018/116, Box 1.)

Among the I.U. faculty who went to Thailand was Dr. Robert Shaffer, who was Dean of Students from 1955 to 1969. From October 1961 to January 1962, Shaffer served as a consultant to administrators at Chulalongkorn University, providing assistance in the development of personnel services. Prior to Shaffer’s visit, all students at Chulalongkorn University took the same classes, resulting in a rigid curriculum. Shaffer worked to establish a placement bureau, an alumni association, and a counseling office. In a February 2, 1962 article in the Indiana Daily Student, Shaffer noted “we hope that the system of faculty counseling, especially in regard to entering students, will introduce more flexibility into the present program at Chulalongkorn University.” Shaffer’s efforts to create student counseling offices were hailed by officials in Thailand. In a letter to university president Herman B Wells, an official at the American embassy in Bangkok wrote, “Dr. Shaffer’s program has been one of the most successful that any American Specialist has had in this country.”

Cover of souvenir book from Chulalongkorn University. (Indiana University Archives, Accn. No. 2018/116, Box 1.)

By the time the program ended in 1962, the collaboration between I.U. and Thailand resulted in 2,638 students graduating with a Bachelor’s of Education. Bhuntin Attagar, a Director General in the Ministry of Education, wrote, “it is my belief that the Indiana University Contract has done much more in promoting international understanding and cooperation than has ever been done before in the history of Thai education.”

There are a number of records in the Archives related to IU’s work in Thailand. For more information on IU’s partnership with Prasan Mitr College of Education and the Thai Ministry of Education, see the “IU Thailand Project records, 1953-1975.” Want a closer look? Contact the Archives to schedule an appointment!

Hoosiers in Thailand: Indiana University and International Development

Art Exhibit Brochure
Program from a 1960 art exhibit at the Indiana University Art Museum entitled “The Arts of Thailand.”

When you think about a university situated in a small city in south-central Indiana, chances are, Thailand is the furthest thing from your mind. In actuality, Indiana University has close connections with Thailand dating all the way back to 1948 when President Herman B Wells met with Thai representative H E Mom Luang Pin Malakul, the Permanent Under Secretary for Education, in Bloomington to discuss education and development in Thailand. This involvement continued in 1955 when IU assisted with the development of Thammasat University in Bangkok, and continued with the establishment of the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) in Bangkok in 1966, the latter of which was administered by IU through MUCIA.

The Midwest Universities Consortium for International Activities, also known as MUCIA, was composed of representatives from several large Midwestern research institutions, including Indiana University, the University of Illinois, the University of Wisconsin, and Michigan State University. Indiana University provided two representatives, usually faculty members or administrators, and the IU president always served as Vice Chairman of the organization’s Council of Institutional Members. This consortium worked together to supply grants that would allow its member universities to build or assist in the leadership of academic institutions in developing countries with the goal of encouraging economic development and education abroad. Most of the MUCIA sponsored programs promoted the fields of education, government, business, economics, and public administration.

Pointers on Thai Manners and Customs
Page of a report from 1956 offering instruction and advice for interacting with Thai people.

These programs benefited the MUCIA member institutions by giving faculty and graduate students the opportunity to teach and conduct research abroad, thus strengthening their own academic programs. In fact, before becoming President of Indiana University, John Ryan traveled to Thailand as a Visiting Research Associate in 1956, co-authoring the monograph Administration of the Bangkok Municipality based on his research there. In addition to this item, the MUCIA records also include research and publications by scholars from Indiana University about Thai culture, including local government, institution building, agriculture, and family life.

Indiana University was a member of MUCIA from 1964 until the mid-1990s. As part of this consortium, IU’s most significant contribution was its involvement with the formation of NIDA. Funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation, NIDA was officially established on April 1, 1966 and included Schools of Public Administration, Business Administration, Development Economics, and Applied Statistics, all designed for graduate-level instruction. Although IU’s formal participation with NIDA ended in 1977 with the conclusion of the Ford grant, the university’s influence in Thailand continues to this day. Currently, NIDA has over 8,000 students, many of whom go on to become politicians, high-ranking government officials, and university educators in Thailand. In May 2012, Indiana University President Michael McRobbie took a trip to Thailand to meet with educational leaders, many of whom are NIDA graduates, to discuss the future of international education. While there, he also bestowed the Thomas Hart Benton Medallion to current NIDA President Dr. Sombat Thamrongthanyawong, further strengthening IU’s connection with Thailand.

NIDA campus in 1966
The National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) campus at its opening in Bangkok, Thailand in 1966.

The MUCIA records, which include resources about IU’s involvement with the consortium from 1952-1981 and documents about Indiana University in Thailand from 1952-1975, are now available from the IU Archives. For more information about Indiana University’s historic involvement with Thailand or other educational institutions abroad, contact a university archivist.