Undergraduate Research

Parker Niles ’23

OUR Featured Researcher: Parker Niles ’23

Parker Niles
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones '97

Parker Niles (he/they) is majoring in religion. He conducts research under the mentorships of Chair of Religion Cindy Chapman and Assistant Professor of Religion Emilia Bachrach. His project is titled “Buddha in a Box: Exploring Museum and Ritual Meanings of Animate Himalayan Sculpture.”

Please describe your project:

Exhibition of Himalayan deity statues in Western museums often fail to acknowledge their sacred nature and associated practices. From a Buddhist perspective, these objects are physical manifestations of deities and have crucial ritual functions. In reconciling objects interpreted in museological terms with their original context(s), this paper uses the case of the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin, OH. Physical examination and archival research with their objects, alongside ritual manuals, anthropological theory, and museum history, will aid in establishing museums as sites of meaning-making, provide an overview of Tibetan Buddhist consecration, and contextualize Asian objects in Western spaces. Arguing that museums often lack consideration of Tibetan Buddhist thought and practice regarding animate statues, this paper suggests frameworks for an anthropological understanding of Buddhist animacy and explores how these institutions could utilize the concept of “third spaces” to appropriately represent and discuss the different worlds sacred objects occupy.

A brief summary (the elevator speech) of your research project:

In this project, I look at how sacred, animate Himalayan statues are interpreted and displayed in the museum and give suggestions for how they can be better presented in a way that contextualizes them and gives recognition to different source and stakeholder communities. 

Why is your research important?

It’s important because this project is concerned with the well-being of sacred objects in secular museums, both from a representational perspective as well as one that wonders if the objects themselves “are ok.” What are museums doing to take care of these sacred objects? Are they following guidelines from source communities? What do visitors think about these objects? Furthermore this research is topical as it involves object-oriented ontology and current subjects like museum ethics. 

What does the process of doing your research look like?

Generally, this project has been a lot of interdisciplinary research into museum studies, art history, finding information on different rituals and reading ritual manuals, and anthropological theory. There has also been visual analysis, physical handling of the objects, and archival research. 

What knowledge has your research contributed to your field?

My work with this project has been arguing for a way of museum interpretation that acknowledges sacred objects in their multiple dimensions as a ritual object, an “art object,” a piece of cultural property, etc, and to understand these objects and other museum objects, specifically statues, as social others. 

Parker and another person examining artwork in a glass caseIn what ways have you showcased your research thus far?

I have showcased my research at a department presentation last semester and will speak on the panel “Spotlight on Student Research” at the AMAM.

How did you get involved in research? What drove you to seek out research experiences in college? 

I always have been interested in writing and research and asking questions, and my professors here at Oberlin have always been encouraging about me developing my own ideas and going forward with my own projects in and out of the classroom. I knew that I wanted to do my own research.

What is your favorite aspect of the research process? 

I like being in conversation with so many people about this project. As in, other students, other faculty and museum staff on campus, as well as the scholars I cite and the other people I am in academic conversation with!

How has working with your mentor impacted the development of your research project? How has it impacted you as a researcher?

My mentors have been incredibly valuable and helpful to my research! They have helped me think through audience intention, other paths I haven’t taken, and led me to sources that ended up being very important for my research. It’s wonderful having multiple people to turn to for advice, to bounce ideas around with, and to keep me on track. 

How has the research you’ve conducted contributed to your professional or academic development?

Given that my long term goals include academia and research, I think this project has been a wonderful introduction to what longer-term research looks like on a smaller scale. This project has been somewhat summative for me as it has combined a lot of academic and personal interests and passions, and really solidifies what kind of research areas I want to get more involved in. 

What advice would you give to a younger student wanting to get involved in research in your field? 

Reach out to professors and talk with them about their research, and get them to know and understand you as a student, person, and researcher! The professors want to help and engage with you on their level!