Last Chance to See: 'Tibetan Objects in Transition’ at the Pitt Rivers. A Case Display curated by SAME student, Thupten Kelsang

The material culture of Tibet has been sought, collected and studied in the West since the middle of the 19th century. Often construed as valuable and exotic ‘art’ or ‘antiques’, it has since entered museum collections and global art markets in large quantities. British museum collections of Tibetan material expanded greatly in the early 20th century following the extensive looting that occurred during the Younghusband ‘Mission’ to Tibet of 1903-4.  Thereafter anthropologists, missionaries, explorers and other visitors to Tibet continued the process of removing items they believed could explain its mysteries and its religion. Thousands of Tibetan objects are therefore now stored in museums around the world, but Tibetans often lack access to them and the opportunity to interpret them in their own terms. ‘Tibetan Objects in Transition’ arose from the perceived need to insert contemporary Tibetan voices, narratives and perspectives into museum space(s).

This case display is an experiment in creating a ‘Tibetan’ mode of displaying material culture which emphasises contemporary Tibetan voices, narratives and perspectives. Drawing from the Pitt Rivers Museum’s collections, as well as objects loaned by members of the Tibetan community in the UK, it is underpinned by the idea of transition, in terms of the material culture and people of Tibet. Like some Tibetan people, Tibetan objects have been ‘displaced’ from their original settings and acquired new meanings over the course of their journeys. Here, these displaced objects and narratives have been re-united with Tibet, personified through the figure of the Senmo: the mythological female progenitor of the Tibetan people.

dislplay case tibetan objects in transition

Tibetan Objects in Transition’ display case: Photographer: John Cairns, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford (c)

Senmo, the supine demoness of Tibet

The image underpinning this display depicts the Senmo - a traditional female representation of the Tibetan landscape. She is depicted pinned down by Buddhist temples at thirteen key locations on her body: four in the inner realm (shoulders and hips), four at the border areas (knees and elbows), four at the borders beyond (hands and feet) and one at the centre (heart). For Tibetans, this geomantic map symbolizes the superimposition of Buddhism over the demoness’s power. The image also relates to shifts in Tibetan political organisation, from a loose tribal confederacy to a large and sophisticated empire that spread into Central Asia during the Yarlung Dynasty in the 7th to 9th centuries CE.


Image Credit: Rinzin Wangmo, in collaboration with traditional painter Dhenta Tashi Dorjee (Himachal Pradesh, India. 2018)


Exhibition curated by Thupten Kelsang and Nicholas Crowe
Technical support: Adrian Vizor
Conservation: Andrew Hughes
Curatorial and academic support: Prof Clare Harris

With special thanks to the members of the Tibetan community in the UK who contributed their knowledge and objects to this display.