Conversing with Clare Harris, Author of The Museum on the Roof of the World

From the Publisher:

“For millions of people around the world, Tibet is a domain of undisturbed tradition, the Dalai Lama a spiritual guide. By contrast, the Tibet Museum opened in Lhasa by the Chinese in 1999 was designed to reclassify Tibetan objects as cultural relics and the Dalai Lama as obsolete. Suggesting that both these views are suspect, Clare E. Harris argues in The Museum on the Roof of the World that for the past one hundred and fifty years, British and Chinese collectors and curators have tried to convert Tibet itself into a museum, an image some Tibetans have begun to contest. This book is a powerful account of the museums created by, for, or on behalf of Tibetans and the nationalist agendas that have played out in them.”

Seeing Lhasa

Seeing Lhasa: British Depictions
of the Tibetan Capital 1936-1947

BY Clare Harris AND Tsering Shakya
(Serindia Publications, 2003)

In the Image of Tibet

In the Image of Tibet:
Tibetan Painting after 1959

BY Clare Harris
(Reaktion Books, 1999)

Then there is the intellectual and academic agenda behind my book. Here at Oxford I’m teaching students every day about the histories of museums, about objects and collections, the politics of museums in the colonial period as well as in the present, and wider debates about representation. I wanted to connect ways of thinking that have been applied to these topics as they pertain in Africa, India, and Native American communities (for example) to Tibetan material because I think that such theorizing could be beneficial for the study of Tibet and its political situation in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

At the beginning of the book, I talk about the museum as a metaphor and what I call the doubly colonial experience of Tibet in relation to museums and objects. There is a quote in the book from the journalist Isabel Hilton where she talks about the removal and destruction of objects from Tibet in the twentieth century as being almost unique. I agree, but my book documents a doubly disastrous history because you have the British 1903-4 Younghusband Mission to Tibet in which a vast amount of materials are removed from Tibet and then a repeat process, coming from a different colonizing nation from 1950 onwards. So I do think that the Tibetan situation, tragically, is unusual and distinctive compared to many other countries which were also looted in the nineteenth century, such as in the indigenous communities of North America or the colonized nations of Africa. There has been a lot of discussion, debate and activism around those areas of the world in recent decades, but that hasn’t been the case with Tibet. The one notable exception might be the “Treasures from the Roof of the World” exhibition, which was one of the first instances when an exhibition became a platform for activism led by Students for a Free Tibet — which is why I documented it in the book.

Another major motivation for me was having worked in a Tibetan refugee camp in Mussourie when I was eighteen. It’s my way of trying to give something back for the many things I have learned and experienced when I’ve been in Tibetan communities, particularly in India. And I’m aware that a book has the potential to reach many people beyond Tibetan communities, people who may not be aware of what has happened in Tibet. As an academic, my role is primarily to produce a book that is sound in its scholarship and hopefully expresses ideas that are inspiring to others who can then unpack it, critique it and use it as they choose.

The first half of the book is a fascinating delve through colonial archives with quite a cast of characters. Knowing your position at Pitt Rivers Museum and being familiar with your publication, Seeing Lhasa, it didn’t surprise me that this part of your book was so strong. When Tibet was largely inaccessible, it was the objects from Tibet that provoked a sense of the place and the items, often religious, you say, that then became “Tibetan Art.” As you point out in your book, this becomes problematic when sacred items go on display, inappropriately on display, according to Tibetans. I’m curious whether you think that museums these days are more sensitive about these things or whether “everything Tibetan” can just be put in a museum.

Some museums are trying to do a better job than others in relation to acknowledging the sacred status of the objects they curate. The Newark Museum in the US for example has a shrine room that is entirely constructed in Tibetan style, and was consecrated by a senior Tibetan Rinpoche. The new displays at the Liverpool Museum include an altar, a shrine and a dedicated area that emphasizes the sacred nature of the objects. The Rubin Museum in New York has a similar kind of shrine room. Those are just some of the museums that attempt to be more culturally sensitive and appropriate in the way they explain and exhibit Tibetan objects.

This can be a difficult task because museums quite often can’t match what they have in their collections with the communities on their doorstep, but today there is more of a drive to make things accessible to precisely those people.

In general there is a trend in all kinds of museums around the world — but especially in museums of anthropology — to think carefully about those issues and to be more sensitive to the values of the communities from which museum objects may have been acquired. It has arisen from the heavy critique of anthropology and its institutions that started in the 1980s, which suggested that they were colonialist, and that there were therefore all sorts of problems with them.

I’ve just published an article in Anthropology Today together with the director of the Pitt Rivers Museum in which we discuss major trends that may determine the future of ethnographic museums. One is to try to unpack the colonial mechanism, and open up the museums to make them more appropriate to relevant communities and contemporary configurations of communities. This can be a difficult task because museums quite often can’t match what they have in their collections with the communities on their doorstep, but today there is more of a drive to make things accessible to precisely those people. This hasn’t yet happened that much with collections related to Tibet. However, the Horniman Museum in London now has an outreach program directed to the Tibetan community in the United Kingdom, and we at the Pitt Rivers created The Tibet Album website so that audiences both near to us and far away could visit it.

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