American encounters with Tibetan material culture

by Victoria Jonathan

Why did Western people become interested in Tibetan Buddhism and material culture at the turn of the last century? What is the history of the first contacts between America and Tibet? How were museum collections of Tibetan art built in the United States, and particularly in New York?

There are many historical answers to these questions, which are not exclusive of each other. Rather, the following elements are often intermingled in complex ways. Religious, scientific, spiritual, aesthetic and academic fields have been mobilized in the encounter between American and Tibetan civilizations:

- Christian missionaries were the first Westerners to enter Tibet. Their original goal was to evangelize Tibetan people. But as they stayed in the Himalayan region for years, they very often became acquainted with Tibetan culture and engaged in scholarly studies. Some of the missionaries collected Tibetan objects that were later brought to American museums. This is the case of Dr Albert Shelton, whose collection of Tibetan art was given to the Newark Museum; or of Dr Marx, whose objects were integrated in the collections of the American Museum of Natural History, like the Giant of Great Strength mask or the Bleeding Cup. Find out more about missionaries in Tibet.

- Explorers and botanists also have been to Tibet quite early, since the end of the 19th century. They often met with missionaries who were present there. While their interest was primarily scientific or personal, they provided the Western audience with some knowledge about Tibet through their travel accounts. Some of them collected objects, like Joseph Rock who had a collection of Tibetan masks. Find out more about early explorers of Tibet.

- At the end of the 19th century, in post Civil War America, spiritual movements inspired by Eastern religious traditions were created, such as theosophy. An interest for Tibetan Buddhism (or Lamaism) also developed between World War I and World War II, along the lines of theosophy. Some people, first attracted by theosophy and Tibetan spirituality in this time of crisis, became very involved in the promotion of Himalayan material culture, like Jacques Marchais. Find out more about theosophy.

- Another explanation for the exploration of Tibetan culture by Westerners can be found in the aesthetic interest for the primitive or the savage. The aesthetic interest for the primitive was at stake at the beginning of Modern Art, when its best representantives nourished a fascination for primitive masks. The primacy of aesthetic emotion is also the motivation for collectors who built museum collections of Tibetan art, such as Donald Rubin and the Rubin Museum of Art. The aesthetic interest in the savage is also well reflected in the captivating power of devil dances on Western audiences. Find out more about the aesthetic interest in the primitive and the savage.

- The history of the academic study of Tibet is tributary of these various contacts. Missionaries and explorers were also engaged in the academic study of Tibetan culture. The alliance of theory and practice seems to be a recurring outline: scholarship often went hand in hand with experience, through trips to the Himalayan region or collecting objects. For instance, Joseph Rock was an academic who traveled through Asia and collected a lot of Tibetan objects, especially Tibetan masks.

How have these contacts shaped our apprehension of Tibet today? To what extent did they contribute in creating or strengthening a "mythology" of Tibet? How does this mythology affect the exhibition of Tibetan material culture in museums today?

Tibet appears in Western imaginings as not only a place but also a myth. As Orville Schell puts it in Virtual Tibet: "One may debate, of course, whether any place on our increasingly small planet remains untouched by the homogenizing effects of jet travel and the global marketplace. What is not in question, however, is the yearning of disenchanted Westerners to believe in such places. Indeed, to acknowledge that such lands may no longer exist has seemed too bleak a thought for most of us in modern life to bear." (p. 15)

A few patterns emerge from the Western encounter with Tibet, concentrated in an ambivalent attitude that expresses fear and contempt on the one hand, and romantic idealization on the other hand. Tibet often appears as a fantasy in Western conceptions, "a kind of sacred space within the desecrated wastes of the modern West" (Oldmeadow, p. 126). The popularity of James Hilton's novel Lost Horizons (1933) and the utopia of Shangri-La, along with the success of travel accounts and the representation of Tibet in Hollywood cinema (like in Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun), prove the persistence of Tibet as a mythical other.

It is remarkable that the Western encounter with Tibet historically coincides with the rise of modernity in the West, through the affirmation of industrialization and capitalism, and the political and cultural crisis that accompanied it. It seems like the processes of mythologizing Tibet in turn reveals more about the crisis of Western civilization: "the most fundamental significance of Tibet in the modern world is as a living refutation of all those values and ideas which define modernity." (Oldmeadow, p. 151)

Rick Fields, How the Swans Came to the Lake – A Narrative History of Buddhism in America, Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala, 1981
Ernst Gombrich, The Story of Art, Phaidon,1995 (1950)
Harry Oldmeadow, Journeys East – 20th Century Western Encounters with Eastern Religious Traditions, Bloomington, Ind.: World Wisdom, 2004
John MacGregor, Tibet - A Chronicle of Exploration, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970
Orville Schell, Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-La from the Himalayas to Hollywood, New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000