History of the Museum

When His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Founder Acarya of ISKCON, The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, came to America in 1965, he brought with him his spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura’s, dream of an American theistic exhibition.  He had planted the inspirational seed for the Bhagavad-gita Museum in India in the mid- Nineteen Thirties.  It was then that he developed an impressive diorama exhibit to present the philosophy of Krishna consciousness clearly and convincingly.  That original theistic exhibition, consisting of dozens of dioramas, still draws hundreds of thousands of viewers on its annual to India.  To fulfill his own dream, Srila Prabhupada asked some of his own disciples to go to India and learn the art of making “dolls”, the figures displayed in a diorama.

In March of 1973, Srila Prabhupada visited with disciples working at the New York temple. Baradraja dasa, then future Museum designer and director, relates that, “One day all the artists were talking with Srila Prabhupada in his room. He was asking about the various paintings we were working on [for his books], and there was a lot of discussion. Then suddenly he said something that surprised everyone; no one knew what to say. ‘I want someone to learn how to make dolls,’ he said. What did he mean? Of course, none of us actually knew what he was talking about. He just kept speaking of ‘dolls.’ He told us that these dolls were made in India. ‘These doll makers are very expert. I want one of you to learn from them.’ It was a complete mystery. What were these dolls? Srila Prabhupada looked around the room he looked at all the artists. Then he turned to me and said, ‘Baradraja, you will go.’ ”

By the summer of 1973, the small group of devotees chosen by Srila Prabhupada to pioneer the diorama project had arrived in India. Adi-deva dasa, another original Museum artist, recalls his early experiences in Mayapur, India. “I remember the first thing we made in our class. The teacher had us sit down and make a clay mango. We showed it to him, and he rejected it and had us make another one, and another, and another. I must have made a dozen mangos, but he wanted us to make it exactly like the one he made.

“Once we got over the mango, he had us make a banana, then an eggplant, then a squash, and so on. Finally we graduated to making animals. We made monkeys and peacocks- all quite small. It was really tedious, and we sometimes felt like quitting. But the thing that kept us all going was that we knew that one-day this work would give pleasure to Srila Prabhupada, our spiritual master. Of course, at this time none of us could begin to understand the scope of this project, the vision of our spiritual master.”

After fifteen months of painstaking training in India, the small troupe of artists returned to ISKCON’s Western World Headquarters in Los Angeles to take up the next phase of the project. “Before we constructed the present exhibit, Baradraja explains, “We presented the whole idea to Srila Prabhupada, with models of all the dioramas. We marked off a corridor in the exhibit hall and set up models of the proposed dioramas all along the way. Srila Prabhupada toured the whole display and approved all of our proposed exhibits. ‘Very good,’ he said, ‘this is buddhi-yoga; you are utilizing your intelligence to preach Krishna consciousness.’

The artists made the dolls in the Museum, using methods essentially the same as those used for thousands of years in India. The basic materials- bamboo, rice straw, various clays, and rice husk- are the same, as are the processes of finishing, painting, and dressing the dolls. But in addition, taking the best from the West, the original museum electronics engineer, Ameyatma dasa, especially designed a computer that synchronized the entire multimedia exhibition— lighting, sound, slide projectors, and special visual and mechanical effects. At the Museum’s grand opening in 1977 Ameyatma said, “We built our own computer because we just couldn’t find anything on the market that could handle such sophisticated programming.”

Srila Prabhupada once told Baradraja these dioramas are “living books.” Baradraja adds, “People say that pictures are worth a thousand words. Well, we have another saying: ‘A diorama is worth a thousand pictures.’” The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust appreciating this special nature of the Museum in cooperation with Ambarisa dasa funded the original installation. In 1984 Guru-krsna dasa contributed to fund the installation of industrial grade projectors and new lighting effects. By 1995 the Museum, due to the influence of time, had fallen into significant disrepair. A major renovation was undertaken with generous funding from Paul Winchel. Late in 1999, inspired by the dedication and hard work of the devotees restoring the Museum, Amala-bhakta dasa agreed to underwrite MediaMation, Inc. to replace the show controls with state of the art, digital, solid-state technology. The Los Angeles Temple Board of Directors contributed ample funds to install the equipment, refurbish the facility and complete portions of the original Museum conception never before realized.