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, these different categories 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 study. 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 went 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) was also developed between World War I and World War II, in the line 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 representants nourished a fascination for primitive masks (like the Giant?). 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 for the savage is also well reflected in the captivating power of devil dances on Western audiences. Joseph Rock. Find out more about...

- 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 an 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. Find out more about

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 as place and myth : "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." p15

Rick Fields, How the Swans Came to the Lake – A Narrative History of Buddhism in America, Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala, 1981