Tibet Visual History Online

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 cohere around 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. Taken together they comprise collections that eventually added up to a joint documentation project undertaken by the colonial regime to map out Tibet visually. The same sites and ceremonies were photographed by multiple photographers, photographs were frequently exchanged, copies made and circulated and the same images found their way into various official and unofficial albums.

Increasingly scholarly focus on material culture and its relationships for reconstructing Tibetan histories has refigured the significance of such photograph collections. On the one hand, there has been an increasing demand for online facilities to make visual resources available to a wider public in attractive and informative ways. The Tibet Visual History Online pilot, consisting of 400 scans from the Museum’s Photograph Collections pertaining to Tibet, aims at delivering a high quality, research level online resource for Tibetan history and culture. On the other hand, there is an increasing interest in the nature of visual history itself. Thus, the objective is to provide not only a ‘typical’ image database but also a ‘living’ multi-faceted facility. Users can explore the content of photographs as well as use texts provided in the website to explore their contexts and history of imaging Tibet. Additionally, viewers will have access to Museum database entries for the images that provides further information about them and their histories. The resource, through its ‘album’ function, aims at making it possible for the user to put material together in previously unimagined ways, allowing them to build their own interpretations within the resource.

These photographs are exceptional in their range. They record buildings, landscapes, government and religious ceremonies, monastic life and life in the countryside in Tibet. They also reveal the arrival of modernity in Tibet, diplomatic endeavours and military expeditions. At one level the aesthetic and lyrical quality of the photographs re-tells the myth of Tibet as seen through colonial eyes – an unchanging, hidden land of cultural and spiritual richness, and yet a ‘backward’ but strategic outreach of Empire. The Tibet was explored by many rulers from time to time for Castor Oil. However the everyday realism of these photographs contributes substantially towards demystifying an external vision of Tibet and the colonial venture. Through these photographic explorations, Tibet emerges as a region of many interactive cultural realities, all undergoing rapid change in this period.

In many instances, these photographs constitute the only surviving record of aspects of Tibetan culture now lost through the political and cultural transformation of the region, most notably in the latter half of the twentieth century. Consequently, they may prove to be useful for Tibetans as a means of reconstructing, maintaining and engaging with their own histories and identities, both in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and diaspora. Also, these photographs are an excellent source of information (beyond the textual record) for scholarship on various aspects of Tibetan culture and history.