A recent gift to the Denison Museum has made what used to be one of the best collections of Burmese art in the world even better.
Here’s how it happened: Owen Lee has lived near Granville for 25 years, but when he walked into the Denison Museum last fall, he had no idea that he was about to see such a substantial exhibit of art and artifacts from his home country of Burma, now Myanmar, nearly 9,000 miles away.
It was Lee’s curiosity about a show called “Baptists in Burma” that had drawn him in the door, and he found Burke Hall filled with objects he calls “priceless in their cultural significance to Burma.” He also discovered pieces closely connected to people whom he and his family had known well in Burma, years earlier.
That visit kicked off a chain of events. The astonished Lee reported his findings to his mother, who told her sister Selina Large, who in turn decided to enhance the already remarkable collection by making a major donation to Denison from her extensive personal collection of Burmese art.
“We haven’t received a gift like this, in terms of breadth and depth and quantity, in decades,” says the museum’s acting director, Anna Cannizzo, who points out that most of Denison’s Burmese donations came during the 1960s from families of early 20th century Baptist missionaries.
“This gift not only augments our already substantial collection, it really reinforces our position as one of the foremost collections of Burmese art in the world, outside of Myanmar, and certainly in the United States.”
For Cannizzo, who works with students from diverse academic disciplines with an interest in museology, a gift like this provides first-rate, first-hand experience in the nuts and bolts of collection acquisition: careful handling, examining, and documenting of objects, researching and identifying, and also discussions of the legalities and ethics of acquiring artwork.
Objects of such cultural significance aren’t usually allowed to leave their country of origin, especially a nation as politically fraught as Myanmar. Coupled with America’s embargo against Myanmar’s military regime, this type and size of collection is very rare, only possible because Selina Large’s late husband, Ronald, had diplomatic status from his many years with the U.S. State Department.
To Mrs. Large, the collection represents a personal reflection not only of her national identity, but also of her marriage and the years she and Ronald spent together acquiring objects they loved. Private collectors have approached her, but she is thrilled to have found a safe haven where there is a commitment to preserving the objects, keeping them together, and making them available to scholars and aficionados from around the world.