Pioneering Pitt Rivers exhibition brings together Tibetan community in a unique celebration of identity

A landmark exhibition at the Pitt Rivers Museum has used an innovative mix of media to shine a light on contemporary Tibetan identity.

The exhibition has challenged cultural assumptions, successfully engaged with the Tibetan community in the UK and continues to influence practice in museums across the world.

Currently there are around 250,000 Tibetans living as refugees globally and approximately 6,000,000 remaining in their traditional homelands, following the country’s absorption into the People’s Republic of China in the 1950s. The Performing Tibetan Identities exhibition was designed as a celebration of Tibetans everywhere in the world, exploring both their present and past.

Professor Clare Harris (School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography and Fellow of Magdalen College) works as both an Oxford academic and a curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum. She has a longstanding research interest in representations of Tibet and Tibetan people, particularly within museums and in digital/visual culture.

Professor Harris set out to put on an exhibition that would challenge convention by bringing Tibetans themselves into the spaces where their stories have previously been curated and told by non-Tibetans. Professor Harris worked with Tibetan artist Nyema Droma along with curator Thupten Kelsang and colleagues at the Pitt Rivers to co-create Performing Tibetan Identities, which ran at the Pitt Rivers Museum from October 2018 to May 2019. The team put on a rich and dynamic exhibition that combined exhibits, an installation, case displays, film and digital displays, workshops and other events to educate, inspire and engage both Tibetan and non-Tibetan audiences.

A fresh look at Tibetan identity

As artist-in-residence at the Pitt Rivers, Nyema Droma transformed the central exhibition space of the Pitt Rivers with over 30 “double portraits” of Tibetans — one photograph in everyday clothes and one in traditional dress. Each participant chose an object of significance to hold to represent the two sides of their identity.

These powerful images, representing both Tibetans living in China and members of the Tibetan diaspora, had a profound effect on both the exhibition audience and the subjects themselves. Nyema Droma explains, “(subjects) rethought their identities after being a participant of this project. Seeing their two identities in photograph form side by side, it also somehow helped them to balance their modern roles in society and their traditional role in the Tibetan community.”

As well as the portraits, Nyema Droma made a film of interviews with the participants, discussing different aspects of their identity and how they engaged with Tibetan culture. Meanwhile, Thupten Kelsang became the first Tibetan to devise a display in a western museum by curating a case exhibit. Members of the Tibetan audience commented on how inspiring it was to see young Tibetans working as artists and curators in a museum space.

Engaging the Tibetan community

Community engagement was a central part of the exhibition’s remit. As well as events for the general public, a series of workshops were held specifically for the Tibetan community in the UK.

Professor Harris says the reaction from the members of the Young Tibetans Education Club (Y-TEC) on seeing Nyema Droma’s portraits was particularly powerful: “Their response was emotional. They connected with the participants (in the portraits) and even recognised some. They felt it was a visual representation of both sides of their lives, some said it helped them understand “how to be both”.”

One young participant commented: “I am now more aware of the fact that there are many Tibetans out there that have struggles with identifying as Tibetan. This provided me with comfort as I now feel less alone and more comfortable with my identity”.

As well as giving the public an opportunity to reflect on their own ideas about Tibetan culture and gain a fresh perspective, the exhibition had a significant impact for other migrant and mixed heritage audience members. One commented that the exhibition made them reflect on “the connection between who I am and the culture I was raised in and how it shapes me as a person.”

Global influence and impact

The exhibition drew a substantial audience during its run, with 485,030 visitors to the museum itself and a further 6,838 views from around the world via the museum’s website (Oct 2018 - Sept 2020).

Nyema Droma’s profile has also been raised internationally as a result of Performing Tibetan Identities, which was her first solo exhibition outside China. She has now curated a further three exhibitions in the US and China. Thupten Kelsang’s expertise has also been called upon by other museums, including the British Museum in London.

Professor Harris’ work has gone on to have significant influence on museums worldwide, including the British Museum and the Rubin Museum of Art in New York. The Lead Curator at the World Museum (part of Liverpool Museums), comments that Harris’ research has been “instrumental in shaping my own practice” adding that “as a result, National Museums Liverpool is the only UK based museum service to have an active collecting policy in contemporary Tibetan art.”

Through collaboration and thoughtful community engagement, Performing Tibetan Identities has shown curators how they can effectively engage and work with Tibetans to create more meaningful representations of Tibet, its people and its culture.