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

Regarding sacred objects, it’s something I have been thinking about for a long time since Tibetan art as a category is principally based on objects that were originally created for religious purposes. In fact my book investigates the inception of the English term “Tibetan art” and what it was designed to refer to. My thoughts on this go back to when I was a twenty-year-old student and the distinguished historian Tashi Tsering said to me in Dharamsala “You foreigners are all obsessed with our religion, but what about secular aspects of Tibetan lives? That doesn’t exist in your books, exhibitions, museums, films, in the West. They’re all about religion.” When I became a curator many years later I had the chance to see if he was right in the context of museums and I found in general that he was, with a few exceptions, such as the Horniman and Pitt Rivers, which are both museums of anthropology and are therefore dedicated to artifacts of ordinary daily life. But the more powerful category, since it is associated with vast sums of money in the art market, is Tibetan art. In my chapter about the Younghusband Mission to Tibet of 1903-4 I’m arguing for the first time in print that Tibetan art was constructed as a category on the basis of a military expedition in which looting definitely occurred, and through the process of those objects entering into museums, galleries and the art market when the mission ended. This created a new connoisseurial culture amongst an elite group of British colonial civil servants, military men, and a few curators in museums in which Tibetan religious objects were first revered as art. This approach remains extremely potent. Only the other day, I was shown an object from Tibet with a price tag of £3 million.

Tibetans lack access to and control of their material; they can’t tell the stories they want to tell with their objects. Ultimately it would be infinitely better if a Tibetan were telling that story rather than myself….

As a researcher and an author I’m heavily influenced by the people who taught me when I was at university or those whose books have attempted something similar to what I have tried to do in my new book such as Partha Mitter’s account of European reactions to Indian art in “Much Maligned Monsters.” Many of the same issues apply to Tibetan art, but the Tibet case is more problematic for all kinds of reasons. Tibetans lack access to and control of their material; they can’t tell the stories they want to tell with their objects. Ultimately it would be infinitely better if a Tibetan were telling that story rather than myself. But for the moment my contribution is to reveal some hidden histories, some amazing unpublished photographs and some extraordinary objects and put my thoughts about them out there for others to explore in their own ways.

You highlight in Chapters Five and Six that both the Tibet Museum in Dharamsala (Tibet’s exile capital) and the Tibet Museum in Lhasa are in their own ways motivated and executed with strong political ideologies in mind. The Dharamsala Tibet museum is soaked in the politics of occupation whilst the Lhasa Tibet Museum speaks the Chinese Communist Party’s “language of liberation.” All these contrasts say so much. I’ve never visited the Tibet Museum in Dharamsala, but I remember seeing an exhibition in May 2008 in Beijing called “Tibet of China: Past and Present” that seemed like China being stuck in the Cultural Revolution when it came to portraying Tibet. The last photo of the exhibition was even a Tibetan peasant on some kind of march, holding up a portrait of Mao.

It doesn’t entirely surprise me that you haven’t visited the Tibet Museum in Dharamsala because it tells a story that exiled Tibetans know only too well. I state in the book that the Tibet Museum is a project created by the exile government to elicit sympathy and support from foreign visitors to Dharamshala, similar to the Yad Vashem museum in Israel. That is, it is directed at outsiders.

My book ends in 2008 and in my epilogue, I briefly mention a propaganda exhibition that took place in Beijing that year. I am sure it was the exhibition you saw. This was the year when Gonkar Gyatso became the first Tibetan artist to exhibit in the Venice Biennale and at the very same time that the exhibition was going on in Beijing. Sadly it was grist to the mill to what I’d been arguing all through my book: that such exhibitions are still being mounted by Beijing and are about fixing Tibetans in a kind of pastness and primitiveness. My books argues that tropes of that ilk go back a long way and were probably established by the British. They have since been reiterated in Chinese Communist mode from the 1950s onwards, and even today the representations of Tibetans to be seen in museums both in Lhasa and in Beijing are eerily “Cultural Revolutionary” in style and content. For example, the exhibitions now in the buildings below the Potala Palace in “Snow City,” Lhasa, are like this. They contain photos that have been taken just before, during or after the Cultural Revolution, and as I say in the book, it’s almost like a “museumised” version of a struggle session. Basically the “Snow City” displays require contemporary Tibetans to denounce and reject their forefathers and their own Tibetan past.

From what I gather about the Beijing exhibition it was principally designed for ambassadors and foreign journalists to visit it, and it was thus a vehicle for cultural diplomacy, or soft propaganda… Basically, that show was put on to control what the international press said about the Tibetan speaking areas of the PRC in 2008 and to distract from the demonstrations that were going on there. It was also intended to make it clear that Tibet was in need of improvement: to suggest that Tibet and Tibetans were somehow stuck in a primitivist past but then, once liberated by China, were moving through Maoism into modernity.

I generally say that my book isn’t about politics — I am not a political scientist and of course museums aren’t always about politics — but if their funding bodies and their directors decide to use them in that way then museums can be highly political arenas. I think in the case of the 2008 exhibition in Beijing, that is precisely what was happening.

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