The Pitt Rivers Museum (PRM) holds an extraordinarily rich collection of over 4000 historical photographs of Tibet taken by British colonial photographers between 1908 and 1950.
They are the product of some critical moments in the British Empire’s political engagement with Tibet: Sir Charles Bell’s 1920-1 Mission, the 1936 Gould Mission and Hugh Richardson’s diplomatic career in Tibet, 1936-50. Importantly, they came to form a joint documentation project undertaken by the colonial regime to map out Tibet visually. The same sites and ceremonies were photographed repeatedly by various photographers. Photographs were often exchanged, copies made and circulated so in some cases a number of photographers owned the same image.
These Tibet collections are part of the larger Photograph Collections at the PRM totaling approximately 125,000 images. The PRM has collected photographs from its foundation in 1884. This has been an intentional policy rather than, as in so many collections, photographs being an ephemeral accrual around an object collection. The photographs are treated as original and unique objects in their own right, with historical information being not only in the image, but also in the way the photographs were presented and used. An image can exist in a number of formats such as prints, negatives, photogravures or lantern slides, it can be cropped or copied. All this tells us something about the history of the image and the ways in which it was used to make meanings about culture, in this case Tibet.
Of the approximately 4000 Tibet photographs, 200 were taken by Henry Martin between 1908 and 1914 (now mainly in the Macdonald collection), 600 photographs taken by Charles Bell and his Sikkimese assistant Rabden, 600 by Frederick Spencer Chapman (Gould’s official photographer during the 1936 Mission), 2000 by Hugh Richardson taken between 1936 and 1950, 400 by Evan Nepean in 1936 and 250 by Harry Staunton in 1940-41. An initial selection of photographs is presented on this website.