Collecting Tibet: Dreams & Realities

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The preference for representing Tibet and its material culture through wholly religious narratives has increasingly been recognised as an ideological prison (Lopez Jr 1999). Museums in the UK rather than continuing to privilege the religious lives of objects in their care are instead mounting efforts to understand the latent historical, colonial and political context and ‘the everyday’ in Tibet collections through community engagement projects (see Crowley 2015) and archival research (see Harris 2012, Livne 2010, 2013 and Martin 2010, 2012). Mining the archives reveals that Tibetan objects displayed in religious contexts were not exclusively understood as religious things by their Tibetan Buddhist owners. Buddhist objects were simultaneously put to work as religious, political and diplomatic objects, or as sites of intellectual and artistic enquiry (see Martin 2015, forthcoming 2017). This type of work has resulted in alternate readings of Tibetan objects, which are now available via on-line interpretation and documentation, although admittedly these approaches have yet to materialise in physical display spaces.
While the primary concern of the 2016 Museum Ethnographers Group conference ‘Faith and Community: Interpreting Beliefs in the Modern Museum’ was framed by the intricacies and challenges of displaying and negotiating the sacred in museum spaces as laid out by Crispin Paine (2013), in this paper I want to offer a counterpoint to these discussions. Using curatorial processes and particularly those associated with contemporary collecting I ask if curators of Tibetan objects can locate them in a less rigidly defined space. I also want to know if a move towards a secular approach can trouble the current stereotypes and tropes that persist in western representations of Tibetanness; one that consistently envelops Tibetans in robes of religiosity and timelessness.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)59-78
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Museum Ethnography
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2017


  • History of collecting
  • Museum Ethnography
  • Contemporary Collecting
  • Museum Studies
  • Tibet
  • Representation
  • Curation


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