Susan S. Bean curates, writes, and consults on the visual arts and culture of modern South Asia. She is the chair of the Art & Archaeology Center of the American Institute of Indian Studies and an associate of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. She was senior curator for South Asian and Korean art at the Peabody Essex Museum until her retirement in 2012 and previously taught anthropology at Yale University. Her explorations into cloth in southern Asia include the 1994 traveling exhibition and accompanying book, From the Land of the Thunder Dragon: Textile Arts of Bhutan, with Diana Myers, as well as essays on the American textile trade with India, and Mahatma Gandhi’s deployment of hand spinning and wearing homespun cloth as instruments to achieve Indian independence. For more, visit

Roundtable on Museums

How an American museum exhibition gave an assist to the contemporary trajectory of Bhutan’s handmade textiles

By the late 1980s an international exhibition of Bhutanese textiles had become inevitable. In the event, it was the Peabody Essex Museum that organized the first large-scale traveling exhibition in 1994. The exhibition project and accompanying book, From the Land of the Thunder Dragon: Textile Arts of Bhutan, were deployed in Bhutan to support the repositioning of handmade textiles. Was this leveraging of an international partnership a fluke or part of a pattern?


Considering Four Vignettes of Gendered Globalization from southern Asia

To probe interconnects between textile production and trade, accelerating globalization, and shifting gender roles, I consider four distinctive scenarios from southern Asia.

First, 17th century chintz (‘spotted’) – the painted and printed cottons from southeastern India that became an engine of globalization in a man’s world of merchants and transoceanic shipping;

Second, 20th century khadi (‘homespun’) and charkha (‘spinning wheel’) –commonplace tools and products that Mahatma Gandhi reinvented to deploy as political action, making khadi into nationalist apparel that promoted svaraj (self rule), and women’s charkas into tools for national self-determination, swadeshi;

Third, 20th-21st century thagzo (weaving) – a women’s domain in Bhutan facing  challenges of modernization and globalization;

Fourth, 21st century transnational industrial production and its impacts on women – the 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh and the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York –’Déjà vu all over again?’ (Yogi Berra).