Project summary

Tibetan collections in Scottish museums 1890-1930: a critical historiography of missionary and military intent

Inbal Livne’s thesis has examined Tibetan material culture in Scottish museums, collected between the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It explores how collectors used Tibetan objects to construct both Tibet in the western imagination and to further personal, organisational and imperial desires and expectations.

The material available in Scottish museum collections is highly provenanced, which allowed her to tease out three clear strands of collecting: missionary collectors, military collectors and colonial collectors. These groups are divided by both occupation and ideological frames of reference: the historical moments in which they encountered Tibetan material culture provided a framework for an examination of the ways that collectors accessed, collected, interpreted, used and displayed objects.

The theoretical structure of the thesis relied on both post-colonial theory and Critical Religion to seek new ways of understanding assumptive concepts and terminology that has become embedded in western analysis of Tibetan material culture. These include Tibetan Buddhism as a ‘religion’, ‘Tibetan art’, ‘Tibetan Buddhist art’ and the position of Tibetan ‘art’ versus ‘ethnography’ in western hierarchies of value. These theoretical concerns were then scrutinised through an anthropological methodology, based on the concept of ‘object biography’, to create an inter-disciplinary model for examining objects and texts.

Using this model, Inbal’s thesis demonstrates that collectors invested these categories with a range of values. This mosaic of knowledge, produced about Tibet by these varying encounters, established and then cemented British understandings of Tibetan material culture in specific ways. Importantly, by assisting in the construction of the idea of ‘Tibet’, these collectors fed into British imperial domination of British-Tibetan relations.

She traced the journey these objects made, from maker to collector to museum. She argues that, on entering the museum, these richly textured object biographies were ‘flattened out’, and the information embedded within them that gave traction to interpretations of British-Tibetan encounters was hidden from view. This thesis has therefore taken on the role of making visible once more the heterogeneity, richness and significance of Tibetan material culture in Scottish museums.