People as objects: Photographs from anthropometric studies

In OBJECT LESSONS we forefront material objects when seeking to understand historical and political events and encounters in Tibet and the Himalayas. Here, artefacts, often collected as scientific specimens representative of a civilization in the field and later sent to European museums, are the main protagonists in histories about, inter alia, diplomatic relations (Martin 2015), trade (Harris, T. 2013), exploration (Lange 2017), and contentious politics (Harris, C. 2012). Some of the objects that I work on with my colleague Miriam Koktvedgaard Zeitzen in the research project Displaced Knowledge: Prince Peter and the Third Danish Expedition to Central Asia are documents and pictures connected to an extensive anthropometric study from the 1950ies. It was not artefacts but people who were turned into scientific specimens of different races and developmental stages through being measured and documented in this anthropometric study conducted in the northeast-Indian Himalayan town of Kalimpong.

Prince Peter worked with several assistants, including René De Nebesky-Wojkowitz, L. D. Sitling, Cyril Namchu, og Kesang Tsewang. Photo from the Prince Peter archive, the Danish National Museum.

During his seven years in Kalimpong (1950-57), collecting artefacts for the National Museum of Denmark as part of the Third Danish Expedition to Central Asia, the explorer and anthropologist H.R.H. Prince Peter carried out the momentous task of measuring 5000 Tibetans anthropometrically on commission for the Anthropological Laboratory at the University of Copenhagen. The survey was designed by Dr. Kurt Brøste, then the director of the Anthropological Laboratory. The observations that Prince Peter and his assistants noted on the measurement sheets were (a) personal data: name, ethnicity (called ‘folk’ in Danish), tribe, age, place of birth, occupation, religion; names and birth places of parents, and occupation of the individual’s tribe, (b) metric data: height and breadth measurements of different parts of the body such as sternal height, biacrom breadth, facial height, ear breadth, sitting height, head length (i.e. everything that could be measured apart from feet and genitals), and (c) non-metrical observations regarding the shape, form, and colour of hair, skin, nose, supra-orbital ridges, ear, eye, jar, chin, and teeth.

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Individual number 57 measured by Prince Peter.

Prince Peter collected this data among exiled, diasporic and travelling Tibetans who were seeking safety in India as their homeland was subsumed under the People’s Republic of China. According to the report co-written by Prince Peter and Professor Balslev Jørgensen, the collected material was a “…gold mine of information about a now dispersed people who soon may well be wiped out.” (Prince Peter & Balslev Jørgensen 1966, 6). The conclusions that they arrived at in their survey were, first of all, that 76 of the 5000 individuals were in fact not Tibetans but children of immigrants to Tibet. The total number of Tibetans measured was thus 4924 (4411 male, 513 females), who were categorised into groups according to their place of origin. Twenty-seven Tibetan Muslims from Ü were not included in any regionally defined category but constituted a group of their own because Prince Peter considered them different in every respect. The people whom he measured came from regions representing ethnographic Tibet, consisting of Utsang, Kham and Amdo (Tib.: chol kha gsum) – not only today’s political unit Tibet Autonomous Region. Prince Peter’s study confirmed that Tibetans possessed mongoloid features yet with internal variations that followed a particular pattern: the longer eastward one moved in Tibet, the stronger the mongoloid features were accompanied with increasing measurements (height, body-built, head, face and so forth). Despite these internal variations, the overall conclusion was that “… in physical anthropological respects, the Tibetans are one people.” (ibid.: 39).

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Notes from Prince Peter’s anthropometric study regarding the age composition.

Anthropometry had been part of anthropological scientific practice since the 19th century, and was considered ‘true science’ by its practitioners – an important addendum to what they might have considered the less scientifically rigorous ethnographic observation. Nonetheless, when Prince Peter undertook his measurements of Tibetans in Kalimpong, anthropometry had already lost much of its legitimacy in the international anthropological community, not least due to its association with the development and use of such data by German scientists before and during the Second World War. The timing of the study was odd, but Prince Peter executed it rigorously, and he nourished a personal connection to this assignment and the people whom he met through the study. Prince Peter even included some of the portraits, which he had taken of the people whom he studied, into his own personal photo album, with which he could entertain his guests when he returned home to Denmark. (These portraits are now preserved at the National Museum of Denmark.) Some of them posed proudly, others seemed more uncomfortable in front of Prince Peter’s camera. They represented “types” of Tibetans – an idea that fitted well with outdated scientific ideals about the composition of peoples in the Orient. For Prince Peter, however, they were not only “specimens” of an exotic civilization, but also contacts and informants from whom he could collect artefacts for the museum and extract knowledge to be used in his anthropological inquiries. Prince Peter’s photo albums were filled with photos from his travels with his wife, Irina, and the addition of Tibetan portraits worked as memorabilia and points of departure for telling stories about their adventures in the Himalayas. The portraits, therefore, not only contained scientific information to accompany the measurements, but in his photo album, they were illustrations of a people who, according to Prince Peter’s prophesy, soon would be extinguished by modernity and Communism. They became a people whom Prince Peter wanted to help.

portræt 4
One of many photos in the Prince Peter collection.

The purpose of Prince Peter’s anthropometric study was to compare the Tibetan data with data previously collected during expeditions among Inuit people in Greenland. Indigenous peoples have been subjected to such studies not only in Greenland and Tibet, but also in Sápmi, from where I originate. In fact, when I encountered Prince Peter’s pictures from the Third Danish Expedition to Central Asia, I reconnected with my family’s past. Prince Peter may also have connected with his personal past when he embarked on the study. He had, I realised, a peculiar personal connection to the work: he followed in the footsteps of his maternal grandfather, Roland Napoléon Bonaparte (the grandson of Emperor Napoléon’s brother Lucien). Bonaparte was a famous explorer and member of a scientific expedition in 1886, in which the indigenous Sami people living in northern Norway were photographed and subjected to anthropometric measurements. I grew up with some of the pictures from Bonaparte’s study, which was published in a book fit for a coffee table one hundred years later.

A youthful Nils-Aslak Valkeapää (retrieved from Wikipedia commons, 24. July 2017).

In the publication Beaivi áhčážan by the Sami poet, composer, activist (and my hero), Nils-Aslak Valkeapää (1943-2001), 25 of Roland Napoléon Bonaparte’s pictures appeared. The book – whose title translates as “The sun, my father” – contained Valkeapää’s poems in North-Sami language and hundreds of historical pictures from Sápmi. The Sápmi territory stretches across the northern hemisphere belonging to today’s political entities Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, and is inhabited by various groups of Sami people. During my youth in my hometown Tromsø in northern Norway, I delved into Valkeapää’s universe, searching for my Sami roots in the sounds of his poetry and in the historical photographs that depicted a life world far from my own. I was looking for something to recognise, something that felt familiar – a way to connect with the ancestry of my paternal grandmother whose family was defined in the Norwegian church books as “søfin,” i.e. Sami living from fishing and farming. The 25 portraits of people measured by Roland Napoléon Bonaparte were particularly intriguing. I would stare at their gaze into Bonaparte’s camera: Who were they? How did they feel to be type-casted as the Sami reindeer herder, fisherman, or shaman, and to be studied as a specimen of their race? Moreover, seeing such pictures again in the photo albums of Prince Peter, I returned to the same feeling of uneasiness mixed with fascination: Who were they? What did it feel like to be documented by Prince Peter’s camera and perform their “type” as the Tibetan nomad, polyandrist, or monk?

Like Tibetans studied by Prince Peter and others before him, the Sami people appearing in Valkeapää’s magnum opus had also been forced to deal with scientists, explorers, and colonialists who travelled from afar to investigate indigenous peoples by collecting, studying, and civilizing them. The coffee-table book transformed the photographs taken by these scientists, explorers, and colonialists into art accompanied by Valkeapää’s poems to create what he called a “family album.” Nils-Aslak Valkeapää dealt with his Sami past and present through poetry, but which new life trajectories will the Tibetan pictures appearing in Prince Peter’s photo albums take now that Miriam and I attempt to decode them within OBJECT LESSONS? How will Prince Peter’s study be perceived and received in contemporary Tibetan communities?

In a follow-up blog post, Miriam will discuss ethical issues involved in Prince Peter’s anthropometrical study.


Prince Peter & J. Balslev Jørgensen 1966. “Physical Anthropological Observations on 5000 Tibetans: from the 3rd Danish Expedition to Central Asia.” Anthropological researches from the 3rd Danish expedition to Central Asia, Historisk-filosofiske Skrifter 4(4) H.R.H. Prince Peter of Greece and Denmark, L. Edelberg, J. Balderslev Jørgensen and K. Paludan and H. Siiger. København, Munksgaard: 1-46.

Valkeapää, Nils-Aslak. 1988. Beaivi áhčážan, Kautokeino/Guovdageaidnu: DAT.


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