Tibet Museum fills gaps between generations by telling their stories: Director of Tibet Museum

Tenzin Topdhen, the director of Tibet Museum in Gangkyi, Dharamshala. Photo: TPI

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Dharamshala — TPI conducted an exclusive interview with Tenzin Topdhen, Director of the Tibet Museum. In this interview, he talks about the museum, its significance, the challenges the team faced in building the museum, his own experience of collecting objects and the purpose of all the stories.

He explains that "through these stories, we establish a link between older and younger generations, and the Tibet Museum fills in the gaps".

TPI: Could you briefly introduce yourself and the Tibet Museum?

Interviewee: My name is Tenzin Topdhen. I was born and raised in Dharamshala and did my entire schooling from Upper TCV. After that, I pursued Engineering and MBA from different institutes in India, and then I worked in a few MNCs in the management field. Primarily focusing on making this new Museum, I was associated with the CTA, 2017 onwards when the Museum was under construction. As far as its (Tibet Museum) objective is concerned, the primary purpose is to preserve, research, innovate, document, and exhibit about the Tibetans, the ongoing atrocities in Tibet, challenges, and future aspects of Tibet. The Museum was conceptualized in 1998 by the Department of Information and International Relations of CTA, and finally, after two years, it was inaugurated in 2000 by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, which was near the Dalai Lama Temple.

This new Tibet Museum was inaugurated on February 9, 2022 by our current President, Penpa Tsering La, and it is three times bigger than the previous Museum.

 TPI: This Museum is also called "A Museum of Absence"; please elaborate on it.

Topdhen: Before commenting on this, knowing the concept behind building this Museum is essential. It was conceptualized in 2017. This Museum is unique because it is a collective expression of ordinary Tibetan people. So we rightly call it the 'People's Museum'. So we took a lot of time gathering the information, going across the Tibetan settlements around India and Nepal, and asking each person to contribute and donate to making this Museum. So it took a lot of time. I was physically present in collecting the donations in Ladakh and Changthang area, so I understand how precious this project is. We tried to collect the story behind the donated objects. Many of them are from Tibet and people brought it with them when they escaped Tibet. Many of their belongings are no longer there, so the second and third generations narrate their story and preserve thecultural significance of these materialistic things.

It is called the 'Museum of Absence' because in this endeavor, we tried our best to gather all the information, but it was always not possible because the Chinese forcefully dispelled us, so it is difficult to pick all the objects here. Few people came here without anything, the saying is 'we only know the sky and the lands' two things which are known to us, the language and everything is unknown, so we started from there. That's why we could not present many things here and are absent. We encourage people to donate more, not expensive items but historically important because they tell a story. A lot of people are coming up to see Tibet Museum because they see the significance of this.

 TPI: In the recent Tibetan struggle, self-immolations occupy an essential place, but at the Tibet Museum, the section devoted to self-immolations is very small. Can you explain this to us, and do you plan to expand it?

Topdhen: This is a very prominent and essential question. But let me tell you from the Museum's perspective. We have all witnessed since 2009 a series of self-immolations, and it was in April 2014 that we started traveling exhibitions of around 27 panels, which include all the self-immolators' names and where they were from. So, the Tibet Museum gives importance to this topic; this is the most distressing thing we have come across. We already covered a significant part of self-immolations in the traveling exhibition from 2014 onwards and have shown this across India. Then, of course, Tibet has a rich historical heritage, close to around 2000 years, and the Museum is only 9000 square feet in terms of size, so everything seems very small in comparison to their actual significance, and there are few things we couldn't even feature here which many people think are very important. So it's always challenging. Furthermore, this small section we provided for self-immolations in terms of quantity might seem very small, but it is rich in quality. We asked one of the renowned filmmakers from White Crane films, Ritu and Tenzing Sonam, and we had given them money to make a qualitative video on self-immolation. When one sees it, it's very powerful. I saw many people whose eyes were flushed with tears. In the manuscript, we tried to bring out all the last words of the self-immolators.

In the future, of course, we want to include all the officially accepted self-immolators and make an exhibition and update the traveling exhibition, which only has 129 self-immolators, and the numbers have gone up to 157.

 TPI: How does this Museum play a role in amplifying Tibetan voices in exile?

Topdhen: If you have visited the Museum, it is a comprehensive confluence of the Tibetans' stories. But the Tibet Museum strictly follows the ethos of 3Cs- The First is Collection- as a museum, we have a department called the Collection Department, which goes around the different settlements and collects objects, information, images, and tangible and intangible heritage of people. With each passing away of a person, they are leaving tons of memories to be shared with others, so that's very important.

The Second is Conservation; there are many things we collect, but they would go to waste if not conserved. So for that too we have a separate department. We have more than 40,000 images of old Tibetan heritage; with this new Museum, we gathered around 1000 objectives and conserved them in one of the most modern ways, fighting humidity.

The Third is Connection; we have a lot of beautiful things and conserved them well, but we need to connect them to the younger generation to make it worthwhile. So this Museum fills that gap. In the auditorium, we host bi month Tibet awareness talk series, which is very important, all experts on Tibet invited to talk on Tibet, and many foreigners come for it. Every day at 3pm, we screen a documentary movie. So these are the ways we use all the collected and conserved objects closer to the community to make them aware of our struggle and the past, this is what the world hear it.

TPI: What impact do all the exhibits and information have on the visitors? Do they share their experience afterward?

Topdhen: Recently, we celebrated the first anniversary of the inauguration of this Museum. On that day, we collect all the data from the feedback book and scan all of it. We found that the number of people visiting the museum is around 30,000 a year, physically, and that the number is about the same for virtual visits. When we first opened the museum, 90% of visitors were Tibetans and only 10% were Indians and foreigners. After two or three months, when we did a lot of campaigns, we started to see a lot of Indians coming here and spending two or three hours. It's very fruitful for us. Some even spend the whole day here. So the quality of visitors is outstanding. In the future, we are also planning to do live virtual visits, by asking people to sign up and register every month, and we will tour them virtually

In terms of feedback, we analysed all the written comments and found the most striking words or things that people wrote, the most important is the 'design' of the museum, although we never had it in mind, people love it. When you start tour the Museum, you see yellow, grey and black - these colours were chosen because these are in our logo. They also wrote that the site was very 'educational' and 'informative'. Finally, another keyword is 'amazing', which sums up the visitor experience in a nutshell. We keep an eye on visitors, we observe them and we take their comments into account to improve our museum.

 TPI: What challenges did you face when the Museum was being built?

Topdhen: One of the biggest challenges was managing the whole project, as we had never had a museum on this scale before. So we had to invite a lot of consultants, curators, design consultants, production consultants, interior design consultants and content writers. The museum has ten different themes, with content written by different authors, each of them is an expert in their field and has their own stance and rigidity on it. So we needed someone to look after everything and sort out any problems that arose. Many of them were foreigners, so schedules had to be drawn up, all in different time zones, and getting together for a meeting was one of the main challenges. That's where I came in, as I have a background in management. The second challenge was COVID-19 - we were trying to build the museum when the peak of COVID-19 hit India in 2020 and we were all lock down from March onwards. In May 2020, we came out and put on our shields and masks. People from different states were working here. It was risky to go home and play with the children.

But we were fortunate that many people came and supported us. This is not just CTA's Museum; it's the museum of common people. That's why they have a lot of sentiments and emotions attached to this project.

 TPI: Any problems when you collected the objects and information?

Topdhen: I will tell you about my experience. In July 2018, I was in Ladakh, and we were there around July 15, and for 6-7 days, we didn't receive any items. We tried talking to the settlement officer, but it didn't work, and on the second day, we decided to talk to the local people. However, we couldn't meet them directly because there's a local chief who has between 10 and 100 people, so we called 12 people first. That didn't work, so we asked to call all the people on the fourth day, and we were able to talk to them. We told them we weren't looking for antiques, but for documents, clothes and shoes that family members or escapees might have worn or taken with them during their escape. People had kept them in warehouses where they were worn out but useful to us, and from there they understood what we wanted and cooperation was easier. So the aim was to tell stories about our culture and our identity rather than make a business out of it. That's how we got my objects.

Note: The interviewed was conducted by Yangchen Dolma, Suhani Sharma and written by Muskan Punia.