Tibet at the British Museum

The Tibet collections in the British Museum are now all gathered together in the Department of Asia, only with the exception of the numismatic holdings (see the Department of Coins and Medals). Religious sculpture along with jewellery from the collection is on permanent display in the Hotung Gallery (Room 33) in the King Edward Building (see website for opening hours). Other items not on public display may be viewed by prior appointment. Tibetan manuscripts acquired by the Museum in the period before the separation of the library departments from the British Museum to form the British Library, are now to be found in that institution (www.bl.uk).

The collection database records 2,701 items under the 'Tibet' heading (objects from Nepal, Ladakh and related Himalayan areas are also frequently located on this database as also are many Sino-Tibetan sculptures). These items consist of paintings (mostly thang-kas, but also prints and a few contemporary paintings), sculptures, ritual equipment, textiles (including costume), masks, musical instruments, vessels, weapons, jewellery, woodwork and photographs. The collection continues to be added to, through fieldwork in the Himalayan regions of the subcontinent, through gift and through purchase.

There is a marked emphasis in the acquisition date for much of the collection around the years 1890-1950. This is the period when the British in India were in close contact with the Himalayan zone and with Tibet proper - both through the exercise of arms and of trade. Early names associated with the collections include Sir Alexander Cunningham (founder of the Archaeological Survey of India) and L. A. Waddell. The great 19th century polymathic collector within the British Museum, Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks acquired and donated many Tibetan objects to the collections up to his death in 1897. The years immediately following the Younghusband Expedition in 1903/04 resulted in large numbers of Tibet-related artefacts entering the national collections (these included a remarkable Assamese textile which had, at some point been acquired by Tibetans and then re-used; this was donated to the Museum by Perceval Landon). Following this, the official British presence at Lhasa and Gyantse, as well as at Gangtok in Sikkim, ensured that interesting Tibetan objects reached the national collections (often following the retirement of the officers involved). Well-known names of this category include Bell, Sherring and Richardson.

There is no published catalogue of the entire collection but highlights are visible on COMPASS, part of the Museum's website (search under 'Tibet'). Many individual items have been published; for one of the best selections see, Zwalf, W. 'Heritage of Tibet'. British Museum Press, London. 1981 and for a smaller selection - and of religious items alone - see Zwalf, W. (ed) Buddhism. Art and Faith . British Museum Press, London. 1985.

T. Richard Blurton, Curator, Asia Department, British Museum , 2006