Conversing with Clare Harris, Author of The Museum on the Roof of the World
CLARE HARRIS is a reader in visual anthropology at the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography at the University of Oxford, curator for the Asian collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum, and a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford. She is the author of In the Image of Tibet: Tibetan Painting after 1959 (Reaktion Books, 1999), which won the International Jury Prize for the best book in Visual Anthropology (awarded by the International Center for Ethnohistory) and most recently, The Museum on the Roof of the World: Art, Politics and the Representation of Tibet (University of Chicago Press, 2012). Harris also created The Tibet Album: British Photography in Central Tibet 1920-1950, a research-based, interactive website officially launched by the 14th Dalai Lama at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford in May 2008.
Could you introduce us to your newest book, The Museum on the Roof of the World? Where did the idea for the book come from?
It goes back to 1998 when I started a new job at Oxford University teaching in the anthropology department and working for the first time as a curator in the Pitt Rivers Museum. At that point, I was initiated into the way that museums work behind the scenes and had the extraordinary opportunity of seeing material from a part of the world I had a longstanding interest in — Tibet and the Himalayas — in one of the world’s most important museums of anthropology and archaeology.
Until 1998, I had mainly been learning about Tibet, Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan culture in India and the Himalayas. Much of what I’d learned had come from talking to people and physically being in those places. Arriving in Oxford gave me a new experience of encountering Tibet, and ideas about Tibet, through a set of objects. For my first book about Tibetan visual culture after 1959, I had spent a lot of time interviewing Tibetan artists and had looked at their artwork in the places that they were made for, but in Oxford I was seeing museum objects completely disconnected from the people who had made or originally used them. So I first started working on the Pitt Rivers collection and I then expanded my research to include other museums across Britain. Realizing that there were thousands of objects from Tibet in museums in Britain alone, I had the strong sense that if scholars such as myself did not know that they existed, then it was likely that some Tibetans didn’t know that either. My motivation initially was therefore very much from the point of view of wanting to make the existence of those objects known and their presence more accessible to other people, and particularly to Tibetans. Accessibility is very much our agenda across the board at the Pitt Rivers Museum, so one of the things I did in relation to the Tibetan collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum was to help create The Tibet Album, a website featuring six thousand historic photographs of Tibet taken between 1920 and 1950. The pictures were scanned and and are now available online to anyone on the planet.
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