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As part of the British Empire, Scotland’s connection to Tibet was born out of long-term political and trade interests, stemming from Tibet’s proximity to British India (1858 – 1947). This extensive history of interaction between Tibetans and British agents along the Tibet-Indian borders was particularly strong in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It culminated in the political-turned-military expedition in 1903-1904, known as the Younghusband Expedition.

A history of collecting Tibet at National Museums Scotland 

One of the things that makes the Tibetan collection at the National Museum of Scotland so interesting is that it show the clear shifts in British-Tibetan relations through this time period. In the late nineteenth century, many missionaries worked in the Bengal Presidency in northern India. The Bengal Presidency was a colonial administrative district of British India, which from the mid eighteenth century was comprised of the current Indian states of West Bengal, Assam, Bihar, Meghalaya, Odisha and Tripura. These missionaries were the predominant collectors of Tibetan culture, working with Tibetan nomads and pilgrims. This was followed by the Younghusband Expedition, which gave British military personnel access to Tibet itself[1] and to a different demographic of Tibetans, namely monks resident in large monasteries and the political and social elite resident in the capital, Lhasa. Over half of all Tibetan material now present in the National Museum of Scotland was the result of these missionary and military activities. Following the Younghusband Expedition, a steady stream of Tibetan material continued to be acquired by the National Museum of Scotland, though by this time most collectors were political agents or involved in trades, such as the tea industry. The objects they collected reflect these occupations and include more household items and examples of economic botany and manufacturing processes. However, most of the objects in the Museum’s Tibetan collection, regardless of their collector, were acquired in the short timespan of 1890-1930, less than a lifetime, making this collection a snapshot of the British Empire’s relationship with Tibet.

We can trace these changes in type of collector and collection thanks to the excellent provenance of the Museum’s collections. Over eighty percent of Tibetan material now held at the National Museum of Scotland can be provenanced to specific individuals, whose biographies are enhanced and made tangible through the wide array of Tibetan objects they chose to collect. Through our knowledge of where, when and why much of this material was collected, these objects not only tell us about the collectors, but about the people they collected from. Often the cultural knowledge and understandings of the Tibetans from whom these objects were acquired were unclear to or misinterpreted by the collectors, but can be reconstructed today through the object record and our knowledge of their functions in Tibetan cultural practices.

[1] In the nineteenth century Tibet’s borders not only included the present day Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) but parts of the Chinese provinces to the west of Qinghai, Gansu, Yunnan and Sichuan. Tibetans know these regions to the west of TAR as Amdo and Kham. Many western travellers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries explored the region of Amdo.

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