By Trine Brox and Miriam Koktvedgaard Zeitzen.
One of the main contributors to the Tibetan collection in the National Museum of Denmark was H.R.H. Prince Peter of Greece and Denmark (born 1908 in Paris, dead 1980 in London). His seven-year “stationary expedition” (Brox & Koktvedgaard Zeitzen 2017) in the north-east Indian Himalayan town of Kalimpong during 1950-1957 produced a rich collection of tangible and intangible Tibetan cultural heritage and knowledge about Tibetan life worlds elicited from among either diasporic, exiled or travelling Tibetans. In our research project, Displaced Knowledge: Prince Peter and the Third Danish Expedition to Central Asia, we approach this collection as part of a larger “object diaspora” (Basu 2011), acknowledging and reconnecting the complex networks of knowledge and knowledge production between Prince Peter, his Tibetan collaborators in Kalimpong, and commissioners and collectors in Denmark.
In this short blog post, we want to share how we work with the collections and archives with our students, particularly the importance of experiencing the materiality of the objects.
The Prince Peter collection and archives at the National Museum of Denmark consist of notes, reports, letters etcetera regarding Prince Peter’s professional life as an ethnographer, as well as a large photographic material including personal photo albums, ethnographic film, and of course an abundance of Tibetan artefacts. To us – as scholars in anthropology (Miriam) and Tibetology (Trine) – this archive constitute an ethnographic time capsule; a container holding historical records and objects considered representative of contemporary culture deposited for preservation until discovery by scholars of the future. In 2014, we pried open this incredibly rich time capsule and have since been attempting to excavate the many insights it contains about Prince Peter, Tibetan life worlds, and Tibetan collection- and research history. Our endeavours include a research trip to Kalimpong in 2015 and, beginning in 2016, work on the collection of objects.
Working in the archives involves meticulously reading and organising Prince Peter’s letters, notes and reports regarding the collection and its genesis in Kalimpong. In order to integrate this work into the Tibetology education program, which Trine runs at the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, the University of Copenhagen, we have organised an MA-lab. The objective of the MA-lab is to give students insight into an on-going research process, in order to teach them to develop a cross-disciplinary research toolkit and to apply it on a small, clearly defined research project. By including the students into our research, we have not only received valuable assistance in our work, but also equipped them with hands-on experience of working in a museum archive. The two MA-students in Tibetology, Therese Haga Fredgaard and Solvej Hyveled Nielsen, have worked with Tibetan-language artefact lists and connected these to other archival materials and to the objects, as part of one of their exams in Tibetology.
The archival materials yield very sparse ethnographic information for a substantial part of the Tibetan objects in the Prince Peter collection. This makes studying the actual object even more important. Very few of Prince Peter’s objects are currently on display at the National Museum. They form part of the exhibition on Buddhism in rooms 164 and 165, where Buddhism is on display through painted scrolls, costumes, icons and ritual instruments. One single glass display contains objects representing Tibetan Buddhism, identified simply as “Lamaism.” Along with museum researcher Christel Braae and the two MA-Lab students Solvej and Therese, we were allowed to open the glass display on a Monday, when the museum is closed, in order to study the artefacts. Inspecting the artefacts thoroughly up close, holding them and handling them, makes a world of difference when we seek to understand the knowledge and heritage they embody.
We have also had the opportunity to study a series of magnificent Tibetan objects from Prince Peter’s collection, not on display in the museum, at the National Museum’s storage in Brede, outside Copenhagen. Our close encounters with the objects have solved many of the questions that have arisen when going through the archival material, particularly Prince Peter’s rather sparse shopping lists. For instance, the two students had read about an item in Prince Peter’s reports and letters called “jewelled skull cap,” which for some reason never appeared in his accounts. What was it? Was it perhaps a misspelling, a reference to a cup and not a cap? We have studied several decorated “scull cups” (kapala, thod pa) made from human remains and used in Tibetan ceremonies and rituals, yet Prince Peter’s notes did not allude to such soteriological tools.
What was the “jewelled skull cap” then? Using Danish phonetic transcription, Prince Peter sometimes related its Tibetan name as “sog yü thag pa” and other times “tsa yü thag pa,” but it was not entirely clear what it was. Therese and Solvej found a reference written in Tibetan language, defining it as a spyi g.yu thag pa. Having consulted one of their Tibetan interlocutors, the very knowledgeable Sakya master Khenpo Khorchak Rinpoche, they could translate Prince Peter’s Tibetan-language note into “strings with turquoise placed above”. It turned out to be not the name of the item, but rather a description of it. In this particular case, their understanding depended upon their Tibetan language abilities, as well as on our experience of its materiality. The “jewelled skull cap” thus belonged to a larger set of jewellery that was usually worn by female Tibetan aristocracy. In Brede, we had the opportunity to experience the entire set of jewellery: how the cap could rest heavily on the head with the strings of pearls and turquoise decorations perfectly taking the shape of the crown of one’s head. Other accessories included: A very heavy Y-shaped headdress decorated with white pearls and 14 large corals comprised an elaborate head ornament. Lhasa-style turquoise earrings, gold pendants, countless strings of pearls and a charm box decorated with diamonds, turquoise, corals, pearls, rubies, emeralds and other precious stones were among the other accessories. Experiencing the materiality of the objects was not only indispensable to our understanding, it was also a personally rewarding experience.
You can read more about Prince Peter’s Tibetan collection in Brox, Trine and Miriam Koktvedgaard Zeitzen 2017 “When Tibet came to Prince Peter: Tibetan-Danish Relations through a Stationary Expedition in the 1950ies”, The Tibet Journal Vol. XLII (2, spring-summer), pp. 13-35.