Seminar Abstracts

Abstracts for the seminar, Object Lessons from Tibet & the Himalayas

Curatorial conscience, collecting 1904 and beyond; new evidence from the V&A files on attitudes to objects collected during the British 1904 expedition

Dr. John Clarke, V&A Museum

Using unpublished material drawn from museum files relating to objects collected during the British Younghusband Expedition to Tibet and to those later obtained by diplomatic officers, this paper reveals the several, sometimes contradictory attitudes, which emerge during the process of acquisition, especially in relation to the question of potentially looted items from the 1904 Expedition. The paper seeks to further explore the attitudes and aesthetic preferences of curators in shaping the collection in the period 1910 to 1930.

Dr Thomas Alexander Wise, Dundee-born polymath: A biography of his collection of “Antiquities”

Christina Donald, The McManus, Dundee

In 1993 The University of Dundee transferred a collection of “Antiquities” to Dundee City Council’s Museum Service due to lack of space. The collection had been donated to the University in 1885. For more than one hundred years the collection was never used to its full potential until Laura Adam, The University museum’s curator, took an interest and undertook extensive research on the collection. She displayed the material for the first time in 1994 in an exhibition on medical history at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee. Since then, selected objects have been on display and have attracted the attention of researchers. It is hoped that the Wise collection will become better known and more fully studied.

For Whom the Bell Tolls: perspective and interconnectedness in studies of early Tibetan Buddhist material culture

Dr. Lewis Doney, British Museum

This talk focuses on the collection of data on imperial-period temple bells with Tibetan epigraphy dating from the eighth to ninth century. It will contextualise the presentation of these artifacts, published over the last 70 years, within the wider study of imperial inscriptions and Tibetan material culture during this period, and compare the way these bells were described, photographed and interpreted by colonial agents with ditto by other foreign scholars and by Tibetan scholars. It will make use of the Tibet Album, hosted by the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford (, as well as other data from the Bodleian Library, the British Museum and British Library. A reappraisal of these sources, should help to elucidate how twentieth-century practices of collecting influenced the representation of Tibet and its imperial Buddhist culture.

Art, Politics and Representation: Some reflections on twenty years of taking lessons from Tibetan objects

Prof. Clare Harris, University of Oxford

Clare Harris is Professor of Visual Anthropology, Curator for Asian Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum, and a Fellow of Magdalen College at the University of Oxford. She has published widely on art, museums, photography, and the politics of representation in relation to Tibet, the Himalayas, and the Tibetan diaspora. Her work has received a number of awards, including the Gene Smith Prize granted by the Association of Asian Studies in 2014 for ‘The Museum on the Roof of the World: Art, Politics and the Representation of Tibet’ (University of Chicago Press 2012). Her most recent monograph is ‘Photography and Tibet’ (Reaktion Books, London, 2016).

Tibetan Material Culture from the Younghusband Invasion in Berlin Collections

Regina Höfer, Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Berlin

The lecture investigates the provenance and collection history of Tibetan artefacts bought from L. A. Waddell (1854-1938) by the Berlin Museum of Ethnology in 1906. As an Indian Army surgeon, amateur researcher and archaeologist stationed in British India, Waddell acquired Tibetan artefacts under highly problematic conditions in his position as “cultural consultant” during the 1903-04 British invasion of Tibet led by Col. Younghusband. But he also relied on alternative sources resulting from his first-hand contacts with and academic knowledge of Tibetan culture. The collection, located today at the Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst in Berlin, consists of diverse object groups, ranging from ethnographic curios, including human remains, to Thangka painting. Considered as one of the foremost authorities on Tibet in his time, however, Waddell’s books on the history of civilisation have caused controversy and contributed to fascist ideology.

Displaced knowledge: Prince Peter’s Tibetan collection

Dr. Miriam Koktvedgaard Zeitzen & Dr. Trine Brox, University of Copenhagen

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 (1908-1980). His seven-year “stationary expedition” (Brox & Koktvedgaard 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 our work, we address exile, diaspora, and displacement as pivotal analytical tools when we re-wire, re-present and re-narrate the ethnographic knowledge production in the Tibetan works, words and worlds of H.R.H. Prince Peter. Kalimpong is one such important conjuncture for different kinds of displacement, where we distinguish between exile temporality and diaspora permanence (Brox 2016). Kalimpong could at the time of Prince Peter be considered a Tibetan place since there was a large colony of permanent Tibetan residents. Additionally, Kalimpong in the 1950ies became an exile – the forced condition of being away from one’s country or home (Said 2000; Shain 1989) – for many Tibetans in a time of danger and insecurity due to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s advancement into Tibet. Prince Peter’s Tibetan interlocutors thus navigated and narrated within a context of displacement, and bringing this displacement to the analytical foreground is a focal point of ours.

One collection, many faces: When did the Wise Collection have its “historical moment”?

Dr. Diana Lange, Humboldt University Berlin

When I started my research on the British Library’s Wise Collection I thought I knew where I was going. Since the collection represents the most comprehensive set of visual depictions of mid-19th Tibet and being trained in Tibetology I focused in the beginning on the stories in the drawings – thousands of little details. But the longer I studied the material and the deeper understanding I gained of the collection as a whole, the more new questions emerged. I realized that, if I was to fully understand the drawings, required a wider frame of analysis in their understanding. Thus I started getting interested more and more in story of the drawings and of the collection. I started regarding the images as the product of a human action. So I not only asked: what does the illustration depict? What is the content? I also asked: who made it, when and why? How did other people come to have it, how did they read it, what did they do with it?

It is hard to assign the Wise Collection’s drawings to a single genre. Thus, I have studied the Wise Collection from the perspective of different disciplines and step by step my research project developed an interdisciplinary character. I used the collection as a case study to examine the processes by which knowledge on Tibet was acquired, collected and represented. Generally speaking, my research is about knowledge production, including categories such as the history of exploration, collecting history and cross-cultural interactions.

During my search for traces of the collection’s origin I came in touch with the people who were involved in the creation process and with the collection’s many journeys. The story of the Wise Collection is quite similar to a mosaic or puzzle that has become accessible piece by piece. Although I doubt that I will get the “full picture” one day, the “picture” I have got so far enables me to analyse the collection in its historical context. In my talk I am going to discuss the “many faces” of the Wise Collection and its significance as a historical source – on various stages.

Learning to Travel, Travelling to Learn: Percy Powell-Cotton in the Himalayas

Dr. Inbal Livne, Powell Cotton Museum, Kent

Between 1890 and 1898 the explorer and natural historian Percy Powell-Cotton made four trips to Kashmir. The first of these trips was part of a larger ‘world trip’, and provided the founding collection to his museum.

By contrast to his later expeditions – over 20 to the African continent in a 40-year period – these early trips seem amateurish, ill-defined and the collections poorly documented. But within the notes, diaries and letters home, a very particular way of seeing the world begins to emerge; one where prior, learnt knowledge does not take priority over seeing for oneself. In many cases, a complete lack of knowledge provided an open book in which to write new accounts of well-known events and practices. Often Powell-Cotton, like so many other tourist-travellers, had no idea what he was witnessing. Seen through untrained eyes, these documents could shed new light on how western travellers viewed the Himalayan landscape, peoples and cultures.

An unashamed tourist at this stage in his life, Powell-Cotton’s archive offers an opportunity to examine the early stages of a long and illustrious career. Though he never returned to the Himalayas after 1898, Powell-Cotton continued to travel, collect, research and build his museum for a further forty years.

This paper will be an exploration of Powell-Cotton’s ‘tourist’ phase and the impact these Himalayan adventures had on a lifetimes work as scientist, scholar, collector and museum director.

The Visual Culture of Himalayan Zoology, 1800-1900

Dr. David Lowther, University of Durham

Geographically and politically remote from the centres of European colonial power, the Himalayas fascinated nineteenth-century naturalists. Pre-eminent amongst them was Brian Houghton Hodgson (1801-1894), British Resident in Nepal. Today, he and his contemporaries are zoology’s forgotten pioneers, who made the first determined efforts to catalogue and classify the birds and animals of the Himalayas.

Central to this project was the commissioning and collecting of scientifically-accurate zoological paintings from Indian and Nepalese artists. Intended to serve as working drawings or as the basis for lavishly-illustrated zoological publications, the watercolours have instead lain forgotten for over a century. Now they are being rediscovered not only by historians of science and empire, but also by conservationists and biologists. Repositories of vast quantities of information relating to species distribution, they remain the foundation of Himalayan zoology.

Created at a time before modern, ‘scientific’ standards of objectivity, by artists to whom such conventions were wholly alien, they are remarkable both as artefacts of a hybrid visual culture and for their extraordinary accuracy. Based on three years’ study of the Hodgson Collection as Visiting Library Scholar at the Zoological Society of London, and drawings in the India Office collection of the British Library, this paper will introduce the images and the context in which they were created. It will then turn to the ways in which the collection, and others like it, may be analysed, and argue that scholars of nineteenth-century science have only just started to scratch the surface of these remarkable resources.

Itineraries of Loss: How Tibetan objects got lost in colonial worlds

Dr. Emma Martin, University of Manchester and National Museums Liverpool

From the late eighteenth century onwards the British in India systematically and deliberately lost thousands of diplomatic gifts. As objects passed through imperial hands they were stripped of their entangled histories and surreptitiously de-valued, de-politicised, de-cultured, and then discarded. This paper focuses on just one aspect of this loss-making venture; the fate of Tibetan diplomatic gifts given to the British during the early decades of the twentieth century. It briefly looks at the context for such gifting before concentrating on the methods instituted by the British for losing things. Significantly, this paper for the first time identifies the presence of a colonial tosha-ḵẖāna or treasury in India and its role in these processes of loss.

I will approach several registers of loss including, a ‘lost’ archive of colonial practice, the recovery of lost objects and the actions they make visible, and the loss of significant things to the Tibetan people. I will end by thinking about the impact of material loss (Smith 2017) on the historical narrative, and the implications this has for the many thousands of objects without provenance in museum collections.

Nestled in a biscuit tin: Younghusband’s Buddha

Dr. Tim Myatt, Oxford

The title of my paper refers to the small bronze statue of the Buddha given to Colonel Francis Younghusband by the Ganden Tripa (Blo bzang rgyal mtshan) in 1904, which later turned up nestled in a biscuit tin in the basement of the Royal Geographical Society in London. I will look at a number of items brought back by the British during their time in Tibet in 1903/4 and where they have ended up in British museum collections.

Mapping Tibet – Exploring material cultural heritage within shifting land-and mindscapes

Dr. Martina Wernsdörfer, Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich

It is the aim of this contribution to test the reverse of Appadurai’s concept of global fluid “scapes”, that is, the idea of the formation of a particular kind of scape which emerges through a kind of layering of multiple projections of ideas and concepts over a more or less concrete but for each sphere reimagined territory. Mapping here has various connotations that have been applied to the term by different people creating their respective land- and mindscapes in different contexts and with different intentions. Taken as a practice of revealing, rather than representing, its meaning goes far beyond the cartographic depiction of a region and its outer surface. Mapping in the sense I am going to expound it in this talk includes sentient walking (Ingold) through a seemingly specific landscape – the Tibetan landscape – which at the same time exists as visual physical reality as well as is made up by the imaginative mind of people. The Tibetan landscape in this broader sense is for each of the layers structured by a great number of ‚markers’. The markers in the case presented consist of a material cultural heritage of Heinrich Harrer and Peter Aufschnaiter, two collections made up of objects, photographs, maps and writings that have been compiled between 1945 and 1952. By choosing some examples, I would like to explore their multidimensionality, their revealing rather than their representing quality, what they stand for rather than what they stand of. Through the proposed approach the potential of an object-based research which encounters marker-objects in their own right shall be displayed.