Revisiting the Museum of the Revolution

In the mid 70’s, when I was an undergraduate at Vassar College, I spent all my weekends in New York with my Tibetan boyfriend Kalsang and his friends. On Sunday, we would walk down to Chinatown from the East Village, eat dumplings and shop for groceries. Yeshi Khedup, Kalsang’s roommate was a wonderful cook and found everything he needed in our favorite store on Canal Street. On the way back, we would stop by the Chinese newspaper stand and buy the latest copy of China Reconstructs, a propaganda magazine mainly about Tibet. Kalsang and his friends would often spot someone they knew in the photos, and though we all scoffed at their brand new clothes, hats worn inside and gleaming thermoses, there was a certain nostalgia in seeing the familiar sceneries and carefully picked landmarks.

Gonkar Gyatso and Tseten Wangchuk reminishing in Washington DC, February 2018

One issue had several pages about the newly opened Museum of the Tibetan Revolution. Set up in the early 70’s, just when a trickle of visitors was beginning to be allowed in, it comprised life size clay statues depicting ‘Life in Tibet before the Revolution’. There were emaciated serfs being whipped by aristocrats in brocades, children in rags, and particularly, a terrified, screaming child being forced into a box by a monk, to be buried live in a sacrificial offering. We were aghast and embarrassed that visitors were being told about Tibet in that light.  The next year, I included a few of these photos in my Senior Thesis, which expounded on Tibetan Identity.

Enter a caption

The original text that accompanied the photo in China Reconstructs, 1975 issue.

Last February in DC, I was having dinner at the house of a friend, Tseten Wangchuk, who works at VOA. Soon after I arrived,  Tibetan artist Gongar Gyatso also dropped in, he was passing through town to give a lecture at the Smithsonian Institute. They were schoolmates on and off in Lhasa, and later at the Minorities School in Beijing. The subject veered to Tibetan artists, and to the Museum of the Tibetan Revolution. Gonkar commented that the best artists, Tibetan clay artists and famous Chinese sculptors had been commissioned to make the statues. Tseten Wangchuk lit up and said: “would you know that I was the model for the boy being put into the box? My cousin’s husband, a clay sculptor,  brought me along, and before I knew it, I was posing for the artists. They were pleased and I had to come back every day, which didn’t enthuse me much as it was excruciatingly boring and extremely uncomfortable standing with my arm outstretched for hours on end”. Gongar exclaimed, “That was you? Did you know I was a guide in that museum as a teenager? The boy being put into the box was quite a sensation” I asked what had happened to the Museum and they said it had been closed, then dismantled. The authorities found the displays embarrassing and felt that these times had passed. The statues had probably been destroyed. Gonkar couldn’t help feeling it was a pity; they illustrated a moment in history and though the subject may have been distasteful, the work was that of talented artists.

Soon after that, when I was cleaning out a closet I found my thesis, typewritten pages falling out their black binder. The magazine cut out of the boy in the box was there, along with the caption that accompanied it. I googled ‘Museum of the Tibetan Revolution’ but found only clay statues or deities and the Lhasa Museum. It was really gone.


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