On Monday 10th November Clare Harris, author, 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 was kind enough to speak to a group of us at Manchester University. She talked about her research on the Younghusband mission into Tibet, which is discussed in her most recent published work, Museum on the Roof of the World:  Art, Politics, and the Representation of Tibet.


Clare talked about zones of understanding, as in, what happens when an object moves from its original productivity (artefact) to a western interpretation of high value (museum-ized context). In the case of much of the Tibetan art she would go on to show us, during her talk, without the context of veneration and sanctity, the work is utterly decontextualized.

The session was really about the violent removal of cultural objects from Tibet in 1903-1904, during the Younghusband mission. The story of the Younghusband mission was bolstered by many first hand accounts of the mission from soldiers’ journals and the primary resources of Clare’s research were fascinating. Much of the session was analysing a question I still am rolling around in my brain.

In the 19th century, references to cultural objects from Tibet are labelled as curiosities, Tibet itself was still viewed as a void on the map to be explored, and those objects of curiosity helped to fill in the gaps and give a sense of understanding to a mysterious land. And so, the motivation to remove artefacts was to make a far off country more tangible. The objects that were brought back after the Younghusband mission were seen as something ‘authentic,’ the ‘genuine’ artefact.

So how did these objects of cultural meaning come to be viewed as works of art, to be highly valued by collectors even today?

Clare Harris posits the following: that it was during this unfortunate incident, the Younghusband Mission, that these objects made the transition and were first viewed through the Western Eye as Tibetan Art. It was through the actions of men on a mission of pillaging a culture they did not understand, it was from their growth from brutalisers to art connoisseurs that Tibetan cultural material was brought to the level of ‘Tibetan Art’.

Through the use of primary research she traced the early use of the word ‘art’ and noted the turn from looter to connoisseur, as one journal entry stated, “knowing this [bone apron] to be of some value…I cut down this work of art.”

However unpalatable this sounds, Tibetan art is in Britain because it was looted from its original location to be enjoyed for its aesthetic appeal. Because of the looting, Tibetan Art was discovered, and made visible to the eyes of the Art World. Tibetan art wasn’t discovered until the looting. The looting propelled the works into the heart of art collection and connoisseurship.

But, I wonder, as the original religious meanings of the objects are denied, what is the destiny for these pieces, living without context?