Performing Tibetan Identities
This ‘Performing Tibetan Identities’ project and exhibition has shaped understanding amongst museum audiences about Tibetan identity and enabled Tibetans themselves to change the narrative about Tibet at a critical juncture in its history.
About the project
For more than two decades, Professor Clare Harris has been conducting anthropological research into the production of knowledge about Tibet by outsiders and the ways it has been communicated in museums and visual/material culture from the nineteenth century to the present day.
The ‘Performing Tibetan Identities’ project attempted to overturn the conventional balance of curatorial/academic power and assign it to Tibetans as much as possible by opening up the galleries, collections and practices of the Pitt Rivers Museum.
‘Performing Tibetan Identities’ was a practice-based, co-curated exhibition with related programming which aimed to address some of the issues of identity and representation regarding Tibet in a museum context. It also sought to provide a space for the Tibetan community to convene and reflect on their own identity and representation. The main exhibition at the Pitt Rivers Museum featured ‘double portraits’ by Tibetan artist and photographer Nyema Droma, showing Tibetans in both traditional and contemporary dress and reflecting different facets of their lives.
The exhibition was described by visitors as having “broken all boundaries” and made people “think deeply about prejudice and stereotypes in general”.
For PhD student and guest curator at the museum, Thupten Kelsang, this project brought “displaced people and displaced objects together” enabling Tibetans to “reconnect with their heritage” and for museums to “become sites of healing after trauma”.
- Exhibition: Performing Tibetan Identities, 13 October 2018 – 30 May 2019, Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford
- Book: Clare Harris and Nyema Droma, Performing Tibetan Identities: Photographic Portraits by Nyema Droma, Oxford: Pitt Rivers Museum, 2019
Film exhibited in the ‘Performing Tibetan Identities’ exhibition at the Pitt Rivers Museum featuring interviews with subject of Nyema Droma’s photography:
- The project directly reached one fifth of Tibetans in the UK, with more than 200 Tibetans attending events in the museum in-person;
- The exhibition project enabled Tibetans in the UK to feel a greater sense of wellbeing and social inclusion through making connections to historic photographs and objects;
- The exhibition also benefitted non-Tibetan audiences through enabling a wide range of museum visitors to encounter a place they knew little about (Tibet) and to rethink their own identities through images critiquing stereotypes about Tibetans;
- Of those surveyed, 66% of visitors agreed that the exhibition had changed their perception of Tibetans;
- The exhibition helped to transform artistic and curatorial practice for Tibetan (self-)representation for both the photographer, Nyema Droma, and other Tibetans involved in the project;
- The exhibition has been instrumental in shaping curatorial practice at other institutions; for example, at the National Museums Liverpool and the British Museum;
- For 62% of visitors surveyed, the exhibition also changed their experience of the Pitt Rivers by inserting contemporary perspectives from new and different voices, making “the whole museum feel less like a house full of colonial plunder".
The project was submitted as an impact case study to REF 2021; the full impact case study can be downloaded from the REF 2021 impact case study database.
Professor Clare Harris, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
Nyema Droma, photography/curatorial
Thupten Kelsang, curatorial/community engagement