The beard, Bhutan, and Brazil

In March 2001, Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban party sent shockwaves through the hearts and minds of people around the world by destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas, two giant, hand-carved stone Buddhas dating back nearly 1,500 years.

Why they were destroyed is, in its own way, a complex issue, but now, over 12 years later, one question persists: what next? By considering Bamiyan’s future and the future of similar cultural icons around the world, Dr. James D. Janowski, a professor of philosophy, is becoming recognized as an authority on the theoretical aspects of the conservation and preservation of cultural heritage and cultural heritage sites.

“One way to put it,” says Janowski, “is that I’m interested in the philosophical questions that arise in thinking about material culture— ‘stuff,’ and, more particularly, stuff that has been compromised. I think about the prospects for resuscitating values and meanings in degraded artifacts. At the bottom of my work are questions in metaphysics: what makes a ‘thing’ a ‘thing’? What makes one thing the same thing over time? Can things exist intermittently? I’m also working in a little sliver of philosophy called axiology, or the study of value. What are values and meanings? And can values and meanings be restored or reconstructed?”

James Janowski in BhutanIn the case of Bamiyan, an important spot on the Silk Road and now on UNESCO’s Endangered World Heritage list, Janowski considers how its significance has changed since the destruction of the Buddhas and what the site should mean going forward. How would resuscitating the sculptures change the former and current meanings of the site? Should the Buddhas be restored or reconstructed? If so, should conservators try to use the original material (most of which, amazingly, has been saved)?

“There really are properly basic—not in the sense of easy, but in the sense of fundamental— philosophical questions at work in my work. In my view, philosophy is best understood as careful and deliberate thinking about hard, interesting questions. But one thing that, for me, is especially rewarding about my research is that I am doing what some would call ‘applied philosophy.’ What happens at Bamiyan, for example, will influence peoples’ lives, for good or ill. We should strive to get it right, and philosophy, its supposed impracticality aside, can serve that end.”

Janowski has been busy this year traveling the world to discuss the value of conservation, cultural heritage, artifacts, and art. In August, he spoke at the General Conference of the International Council of Museums in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Last February, because of his work on Bamiyan, he was an invited participant at the Conference on Protection of Cultural Property in Asia, which was held in Bhutan’s capital of Thimphu. He has published four papers on the philosophy of cultural heritage, and is working on a book which both weighs in on the central questions in conservation theory and aims to sort out what should happen at Bamiyan.

While these trips gave Janowski the chance to share his knowledge on the conservation of cultural material, they were also wonderful opportunities to learn about two very different parts of the world.

Bhutan is a tiny kingdom perched in the Himalayan highlands between China and India. It has only one airport, with a single runway and a single national airline. The primary “highway” is a mere two-lane road, complete with yaks, rock slides, and super-steep guard-rail-less drop-offs. Janowski says, “Of course I wasn’t around in the 19th century, but Bhutan is a very, very traditional society and the parts of the country I saw made me think ‘I wonder if this is what the United States was like in the 1850s?’ I saw people laboring with very rudimentary tools. There was very little machinery; animals were doing the heavy lifting.”

“In some sense Bhutan is a developing society, but it is proceeding in a very careful and deliberate way. The kingdom first allowed television in 1999. The Bhutanese are not concerned about gross national product; instead they focus on “gross national happiness,” so the change and development in the country is tightly controlled. Moreover, visitors can’t just up and go there. You have to sign on with a government-sanctioned tour group. You need a visa and your trip has to be scripted and approved.”

James Janowski in BrazilMany of the accommodations were quite basic. Janowski visited in the snowy winter and his rooms were heated only by a small electric space heater. Officially, Bhutan has Internet access, but it never worked for him. Despite—or maybe because of—the lack of modern conveniences, Janowski returned home with a great appreciation for Bhutan’s people and natural beauty. Janowski said, “The Bhutanese were wonderful, and the experience was like opening and entering a time capsule.”

Janowski’s experience in Brazil was similarly exotic. Janowski stayed in the Barra de Tijuca neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, which is somewhat Americanized and international compared to other parts of the city, and the conference was held a few miles away at Cidade das Artes, a brand new convention and arts center bristling with technology, concert halls, art galleries, class rooms, and shops.

Just as he had in Bhutan, Janowski was able to get a taste of the local culture. He says, “I was a good, dedicated conference goer and spent every day at the meeting. That said, I did sneak away one late afternoon, with a Brazilian monk and a Chilean conservation theorist, to visit a really great museum of Brazilian folk art. I also spent part of our excursion day at the National Museum of Natural History and was treated to an amazing evening at the Municipal Opera House in Rio’s old city center.”

Janowski has always enjoyed traveling and these two trips, occasioned by the success of his thinking and writing on the conservation of cultural heritage, are likely to go down as two he will not soon forget.

“Being in Bhutan and Brazil were both great and wonderful experiences. It was an honor and a privilege to be able to talk about my research with smart and interesting people in such far-flung places.”