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

Clare Harris

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

If Dharamsala and Beijing are both using museums as a vehicle for a particular political message, then do you think there is a possibility that contemporary art exhibitions and galleries might be the spaces in which Tibet can be seen represented as a living, breathing place?

I do think that is what a lot of people hope to be the case. Contemporary art made by Tibetans, in my opinion, is one vehicle in which you can see signs of the vibrancy and complexity of Tibetan culture, not only in Tibetan speaking areas of the PRC but outside as well, and that is very important to me, to the artists themselves and to the Tibetans who see their work. But it’s not the only area in which a vibrant cultural life is being created by Tibetans; there is also music, film, writings of all descriptions, online and offline, etc. Plus there are many other things going on that are difficult to talk about given the current political situation, but the reason why I wrote about contemporary art is because art is what goes into museums and public spaces. The whole argument of the book is framed by the idea of the museum as an institution, and the problematic ways that Tibet has been represented in museums.

The whole argument of the book is framed by the idea of the museum as an institution, and the problematic ways that Tibet has been represented in museums.

So I include contemporary artworks (rather than Tibetan literature or music) in my book because they are usually tangible things that go into museum spaces. They have enabled their creators to demonstrate there is something vibrant going on in Tibet, something modernist or even post-modernist in terms of Tibetan cultural production. This is something I was interested in when I wrote my first book. But since 1999 when it came out, the development of Tibetan contemporary art has just gone through the roof! Now you can be in London, Venice, New York, and even in Beijing looking at artworks made by Tibetans, and that has got to be a good thing on one level. However there are a number of related problems that arise from this success story such as, Why are these works everywhere except Tibet? There are of course some galleries in Tibet as well as other kinds of spaces where these works can be encountered but currently there is not as big an audience for contemporary Tibetan art in Lhasa or Dharamsala as there is in New York (for example); the number of people who are interested in art is still very small. That is partly because there isn’t an infrastructure to support an art world in either Lhasa or Dharamshala. It is now possible to study fine art at Tibet University, but there aren’t any art journals, or art critics or lots of galleries of the sort you can find in London or Beijing. I’ve talked to many artists from Lhasa, and this is what they are absolutely desperate for: more interaction with other Tibetans, and especially Tibetans who think and read about art. I do think the community is there, but it’s small and for the moment quite underground. Until these things can be more supported structurally, I think it will remain the case that a lot of the work that has been made in Lhasa will come straight out of the country and go into these huge galleries and museums all over the world. However I do know that the artists in Lhasa are conscious of the fact that if a Tibetan artwork goes on display in San Francisco, that at least means it can be seen by diasporic Tibetans in the US.

In Chapter Seven, you mention that contemporary Tibetan art had its beginnings in the 1980s as a direct response to Chinese artists dominating the Tibetan art scene. I found this interesting; in my Masters’ thesis, I looked at cultural production related to Tibet from Chinese filmmakers and writers, and not only were the voices of Tibetans literally absent in the film The Horse Thief (1986), for example, they were also absent from the whole debate around the film then. In this way, wasn’t forming the Sweet Tea House Association a very significant move? Would you say that it was also quite bold for the time?

Yes, it was amazing and I wrote about it in my first book. It was incredibly revolutionary and brave. The culture in the 1980s in Lhasa was relaxed on one level, especially compared to now, but you still had to be a member of the Chinese Artists Association if you wanted to be an artist. And everything in the world of art production in Tibet in the 1980s was all pretty much controlled by significant Chinese figures such as Han Shuli. Actually, in this book I’ve gone back and slightly rephrased the situation because I think in my first book I didn’t give enough credit to Han Shuli. I’ve now interviewed him and many of the Tibetan artists who studied with him, such as Gonkar Gyatso and Gade. They were all heavily influenced by him at one point, and I thought I had missed that out in my first account.

Horse Thief

Dao ma zei (The Horse Thief)
DIRECTED BY Tian Zhuangzhuang
(Xi’an Film Studio, 1986)

In my current book, I argue that the presence of Chinese artists in Lhasa in the 1980s was in some ways stimulating — Han Shuli was the first one, for example, to break up the Buddha body and treat it in a Modernist way. Tibetan artists then took that idea and ran with it. But in Chapter Seven, I tried to say that the presence of Chinese artists was both a stimulant and also a depressant. The Sweet Tea House Association was specifically set up because Tibetan artists were not selected to go the national minorities art exhibition. So it was a reaction against Chinese control in the art world. That was a positive thing as they clubbed together to do something distinctively Tibetan, and the first ever agenda to produce a contemporary Tibetan form of making modern art was created. It was created in antithesis to Chinese control over the art world, so it was a brave and radical thing to do. It was also a major leap forward in terms of how Tibetans would use art as a way of self-identification and of distinguishing themselves from China in a visual and aesthetic form.

In my books I suggest that they still had to use an “encrypted vocabulary,” derived from Western modernism, to create abstract works which were not easily readable, or couldn’t be misinterpreted by censors. Obviously, if they did anything that was too overtly political, their work would never be exhibited and, of course ultimately artists want to exhibit their work. They primarily exhibited in tea houses and to other young Tibetans. But I think the style and forms they created at that point were the product of what was an increasingly tense atmosphere; towards the end of the eighties, there were riots and demonstrations, so there’s a combination of Tibetan independence in visual forms at the same time as having to do it in a careful way so that it didn’t meet with the ire of the Chinese art authorities.

On a related note, I guess my concern is that while contemporary Tibetan artists are producing works, Tibetans are not consuming the art works. Tibetans are also not writing reviews or criticisms, as far as I can gather. Has there ever been a Tibetan art critic for example? I’ve only seen recent commentaries written by Tibetan poet and writer Woeser about modern Tibetan art. Do you think that Tibetan art, and particularly art scholarship, needs Tibetan participation?

I think things would be different if the Tibetan Autonomous Region and Lhasa in particular was a different sort of space. If people could more readily set up new journals. There are of course literary journals, but as far as I know, there aren’t any journals for art. When I think about Tibet, I’m usually thinking about it in comparison with India, which is where I’ve spent most of my time doing research. If you look at the history of modernist art, the reason why India now has such a booming art culture is partly because it has had more than one hundred years of having an infrastructure for that, with at least two or three art journals founded before 1947. There have been major figures in Indian politics who have also been artists and India had academics who have been writing about art since before its independence.

More money needs to go into the art world infrastructure in places like Lhasa, to cultivate a scene with more galleries, artists’ associations, and art critics…. It’s a phase that has yet to happen and it requires two things: an environment that is politically stable, and money.

Unfortunately, Tibetans lack that kind of art structure because they haven’t been in control of setting up their own institutions to support those kinds of activities, and what has happened, at least in the art world, is when the outside dealers came into Lhasa, what they could provide was money, logistics, connections. When the Gendun Choephel Guild (as important as the Sweet Tea House Association) was set up in 2003, they could do their own internal communications within Lhasa, but if they wanted to communicate with the outside world, I think it would have been extremely difficult without these outsiders coming from America and now increasingly from all over the world, including other parts of China, especially Hong Kong. So those foreigners have been able to support the artists financially. That makes a huge difference even if it unfortunately still means that the art is mainly going out of Tibet and is generally being bought by non-Tibetans. More money needs to go into the art world infrastructure in places like Lhasa, to cultivate a scene with more galleries, artists’ associations, and art critics…. It’s a phase that has yet to happen and it requires two things: an environment that is politically stable, and money. The creativity and talent is undoubtedly already in place.

In response to your question, I would like to emphasize that there are several Tibetans who write about contemporary Tibetan art. The acclaimed writer and activist Jamyang Norbu has published an essay called “The Tractor in the Lotus on the development of modern Tibetan art.” Tashi Tsering at the Amnye Machen Institute in Dharamshala has been gathering information, putting on exhibitions and generally supporting Tibetan artists for over thirty years now. Although his major publications are not about contemporary art, he has been a leading figure advocating for artists like Gonkar Gyatso and the sculptress Pekar, and the Institute has held exhibitions of Tibetan art since the early 1990s. Yangdon Dhondup has written an article about Gade, one of the key figures in the Lhasa art world. And very recently the essay in the catalogue for Tenzing Rigdol’s exhibition at the Rossi Gallery in London was written by Dhondup Tashi Rekjong. There have been pieces on Tibetan art on the website Lhakar Diaries. In addition several artists themselves are writing about the developments in Tibetan art over the last few decades such as Tsewang Tashi who is completing a PhD in Oslo. Gade is also planning to write a book about contemporary Tibetan art. There is definitely a small but important community of people who think about Tibetan art and who are Tibetan, and that includes some leading intellectuals such as Jamyang Norbu, Tsering Shakya and Tashi Tsering, but ultimately it’s up to the younger generation of Tibetans to get into publishing articles and help to keep cultivating this adventurous work.

Why do you think Lhasa is the hub for contemporary Tibetan art? Is there Tibetan art coming out of Kham and Amdo? Does it have to do with visual versus textual art and the political situation? Or is this changing now that the recent major exhibitions on contemporary Tibetan art have taken place in Beijing?

I think it’s safe to say that contemporary Tibetan art is being produced almost everywhere by Tibetan artists living in India, America, across the Tibetan speaking regions of the PRC. Even though I haven’t been there myself, an Australian student wrote a PhD thesis on art in Labrang although the painters there were mainly working in the thangka tradition. So it does depend on what we’re talking about.

The answer that any art historian would probably give is that there will always be places where the most radical and avant-garde works come from, and those hubs are likely to be places such as Lhasa. It’s partly to do with economics and partly to do with infrastructure. Since Tibet University opened a school of fine arts in the 1980s it has been possible to study art in Lhasa — which is not the case in Kham or Amdo. The fact is that urban environments tend to produce art institutions and young people with new ideas quite often tend to congregate in cities. Many of those who are now leading contemporary figures in the Tibetan contemporary movement art were actually trained in Beijing. Artists have to be willing to be mobile and are drawn to cities where lots of art activities are going on.

It’s also about the physical nature of art in that it needs to be made in studios and exhibited in certain kinds of spaces. Unlike the phenomenal literary traditions of Amdo (for example) contemporary art requires quite big spaces and certain kinds of equipment. The majority of cutting-edge art figures are therefore in places like Lhasa because of the resources and the community.

It doesn’t surprise me at all that contemporary Tibetan art is becoming popular in places such as Beijing, or Hong Kong (where there are substantial sales). Going back to the 1980s, as problematic as films like The Horse Thief and works by Chinese painters from that period are, those artists who were leaving Beijing and Shanghai to go to Tibet to make paintings of Tibetan nomads thought of themselves as “cutting edge,” and they were for their time. Arguably their works were also disempowering in terms of their representations of Tibetans, but I think that there is now a wider community of young Han Chinese who are very keen on what Tibetans themselves produce as artists even if they continue to be fascinated by Tibet and Tibetans in terms of difference. When I was in Lhasa I met all sorts of young Chinese artists and filmmakers, who were very excited about Tibet as a place, as well as in what Tibetans themselves were doing.

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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