Remembering Pamela Gutman, a Scholar Versed in Arakan Art

By Milton Osborne 8 April 2015

At a time when there is increasing interest in Australia’s developing ties with Burma (also called Myanmar), the death on March 31 of Pamela Gutman brings to an end the life of the first Australian scholar to complete a doctorate in Asian art and to do so in relation to Burma.

The fruits of this research were eventually contained in her highly praised book, “Burma’s Lost Kingdoms: Splendours of Arakan,” published in 2001. To record these blunt facts tells little of the effort involved in her carrying out research in Burma in the 1970s, when the government was resistant to foreign scholarship, and travel in Arakan State could only take place with the assistance of a military escort.

Yet Pamela overcame the difficulties research in Burma posed, which involved translating Sanskrit inscriptions and becoming highly knowledgeable about obscure numismatics. She also played an early part in government-to-government relations.

She was invited to dine with the then Burmese president, Ne Win, to advance the cause of an Australia-Burma cultural agreement, an event, as she was able to recount, that involved being admitted to Ne Win’s residence only after she had been examined through a periscope at the residence’s guard post.

At a time when opportunities for full-time employment in universities were limited, Pamela worked in the Department of Immigration and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, which included working in association with Professor Ross Garnaut on “Australia and the Northeast Asian Ascendancy.”

Her involvement in Australia’s growing links with Asia ranged from being Deputy Director of the Research Institute for Asia and the Pacific at the University of Sydney, to being the founding Director (International) of Asialink. She also worked with the Commission for the Future in establishing cultural exchange programs. From 1997 to 2004 she was a member of the Refugee Review Tribunal, where she worked in relation to Asian issues.

Throughout her life in public and university service she never neglected her passionate interest in Burma’s history, and after leaving the Refugee Review Tribunal she became an Honorary Associate in the Department of Art History and Theory at the University of Sydney. The regard in which she was held as an authority on Burmese art and Southeast Asian art more generally led to her being consulted by major galleries in Australia and overseas, including recently by The Hermitage in St Petersburg and the Asia Society in New York.

Pamela Gutman, a scholar and expert on Arakanese and Burmese arts, 1944-2015. (Photo: Lowy Interpreter)
Pamela Gutman, a scholar and expert on Arakanese and Burmese arts, 1944-2015. (Photo: Lowy Interpreter)

Sadly, she had not completed her planned second edition of Burma’s Lost Kingdoms, though there is hope that this may be completed by one of her PhD students, Martin Polkinghorne. She also left the incomplete text of a biography of the great English scholar of Burma, Gordon Luce. She had studied with Luce in Jersey and she was fascinated both by his renown as a scholar and by his membership of the Bloomsbury Group, which included his close association with Maynard Keynes.

Only a few months ago her major study of an inscription from Sriksetra in western Burma, written in conjunction with Bob Hudson, was published in the Bulletin of the Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient. This article is set to revise judgments on just when Buddhist influences became important in early Burmese history.

Above all she was a warm and extraordinarily generous person, qualities that extended to her being instrumental in ensuring that cosmetics, particularly Red Earth lipstick, could be taken into Burma for Aung San Suu Kyi while she was under house arrest. Her door was always open to those who wanted to know more about Burma or who wanted to share their knowledge with her. So a visitor to her home might find that he or she was meeting an Arakanese Buddhist monk or an exiled princely Sawbwa from Shan State. This generosity of spirit will be as much a memory of her as her admirable academic achievements.

She is survived by her daughter, three grandchildren, and her two sisters.