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

I’d like to mention that photos from an earlier project of yours, The Tibet Album, are constantly popping up today in my feeds on social media networks such as Weibo. Tibetans in Tibet and PRC are sharing the photos with one another, and putting them up on their blogs, even though the photos have been online for quite a few years now. Can you perhaps comment on why you think these photos from 1920-1950 still have such an appeal? My personal theory is that Tibetans “prefer” the British representations of the past…

Well, first of all I’m absolutely delighted to hear that. I didn’t know that the photos were being shared and talked about on Weibo, and it’s good to know that The Tibet Album is still accessible in the PRC. A point made by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in the foreword to a book entitled Tibet: Caught in Time is that photos taken before 1950 are hugely important because they show Tibet under Tibetan control and Tibetans living life under Tibetan Buddhist principles, with Tibetan leaders and their own government.

In my book, I also talk about how those photographs are used by others, such as in the Chinese context, and how they are used on websites by the Chinese government to demonstrate various things about Tibet that are not very positive. I’m particularly delighted that Tibetans are sharing these photos from the pre-1950 period in positive constructions of history and memory. But ultimately, a lot of them are taken by British colonial civil servants and military officers as well. So it’s fascinating that British colonial imagery that otherwise might be thought of as tainted, has a positive resonance for contemporary Tibetans. Given what’s happened since 1950, these photos are hugely valuable.

I’m really pleased that the digital objects we’ve put out there can be acquired by anybody. As to why British representations might be “preferred,” I can only say that it must be because they’re not Chinese representations! But I do think cultures all over the world enjoy a certain nostalgia about the past, and share a pleasure in looking at old photographs and film footage. What I’m interested in, though, is that the same photographs and footage are being used by the Chinese government to tell the opposite story; British colonial era photos are currently appearing on Chinese government funded websites to show that Tibet was never an independent country and for all kinds of other propaganda purposes. It’s complicated but fascinating.

One of the things I truly enjoyed and appreciated about the book was its accessibility and readability. I wouldn’t hesitate to give the book to friends or relatives as a gift just for a solid, good read — especially the anecdotes from the British in Tibet, the skull of Confucius, and Warren Hastings’ yak! Was that your intention despite being published within the academic press? What kind of readership did you have in mind, if any?

This level of accessibility is unusual perhaps for an academic book, but it was partly due to the editor at Chicago University Press, Alan Thomas, and the series editor Don Lopez who wanted me to write it in a way that was potentially accessible to anyone interested in Tibet, museums, photography and art.

Although some of my colleagues in universities might say that they solely write for a specialist audience, I think that Tibet is a subject that is not just of interest to people with PhDs and so I write with a wider readership in mind. I was particularly hoping that Tibetans, as well as all the other groups of people I mentioned earlier, might read this book. The style in which something is written does matter to me. I’d like to think that the writing in my current book is informed by a lot of theories that I have read about and have taught to my students in Oxford, but that it is not bogged down by them.

Aside from the contents, The Museum on the Roof of the World is a very well-produced book. A lot of thought and efforts have clearly gone into the aesthetic quality and feel of the book, such as the red on the outside and the yellow inner lining. Even the chapter title pages have decorative Tibetan style frames. Is it important for you that the objects you produce either somehow reflect the content of the work or is it more that you pay attention to aesthetics?

I’m afraid that I can’t take any credit at all for the beauty of the book! The University of Chicago Press did a lovely job. The production values for texts written by academics are not always that high, so I am very grateful to them. The look of the book is all due to the Chicago designers, who I never met or even had any direct communication with. The one thing I did do was to suggest the cover photo. It’s connected to a quote by Captain O’Connor, an assistant to Younghusband, who talked about how all Tibetans ought to be put in a museum. To me, the cover photograph has that kind of feeling about it: since it shows two Tibetans standing very still in a nineteenth century photographic studio. It’s a rather troubling image that alludes to some of the things I am discussing in the book.

It’s important to me that all the illustrations are reproduced properly. A lot of them have never been published, so one of the most exciting things about the book is that it reveals archival images that were previously unknown.

What is your next project or book going to be?

My next book will be about Tibet and photography. There is so much material, and so much work still left to be done. There are thousands and thousands of photos of Tibet in archives across Britain, not to mention in many other parts of the world. I also intend to write far more about the developments I have witnessed in the burgeoning field of Tibetan contemporary art. There are so many wonderful artists and artworks out there!

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