Shuzhen Kong’s enthralling post about a brick of dried tea leaves transported me from the store rooms of the Museum where I first encountered the ‘artefact’ to the tasting room where hot water would transform dried leaves into liquor with a silky texture and the fragrance of old wood. We are not, generally, used to thinking of museum objects as things that could be eaten or drunk, let alone considering what it would taste like.
For me, my introduction to this object was, as is often the case, through the donor. Fifty-two objects from Tibet were accessioned into the collections of MAA in 1947. The ‘specimen of brick tea’ (1947.779) is listed after a group of statues and before a pair of वज्र (vajra, brass ‘thunderbolts’). The source of the collection is noted as ‘Lady Schuster’, but no further information is given: nothing more about her, or the collector if different, or the circumstances in which they were acquired. Only ‘Tibet’ was given as the place of origin.
In a letter in the MAA archives, dated 10 October 1938, Professor Robert S. Hutton, Goldsmiths Professor in Metallurgy at Cambridge and Fellow of Clare College, informed the Museum’s Director Thomas Thomson Paterson that Hutton’s mother-in-law ‘Lady Schuster of Yendall’ has asked him
‘to find out whether you would be at all interested for the museum in some Tibetan curios which she and her husband collected some years ago on a visit to that country. Some decision is rather urgent as she is about to vacate her house and distribute its contents.’
‘If you think there is the least chance of them being of interest to you’, Hutton wrote, ‘perhaps you could write to her direct and ask for some description.’
Only one letter from Lady Schuster survives in MAA’s archive. She wrote to Paterson two days later expressing, ‘glad to hear you think the Tibetan curios may be of use to your Museum’ and suggesting that either her daughter or son-in-law could bring the collection to Cambridge so that Paterson could choose those suitable for the Museum, and return the rest.
We assume that the collection was duly transported to Cambridge, but that the outbreak of World War II less than a year later prevented anything further being done with it. Any notes that accompanied the objects, and any further details of when, or precisely where, the objects were collected, seem to have been lost. The disruption of world events such as war is an often overlooked theme in museum histories that often frustrates the provenance researcher and effectively breaks the chain of an object’s biography that could explain how, and why, artefacts came to be in museums.
When were these objects collected? Hutton’s letter states that the objects were acquired by Lady Caroline, or ‘Cary’ Schuster and her husband on a visit to Tibet. Cary Schuster was the wife of the German-born physicist Arthur Schuster, known for his work on solar spectra, his promotion of meteorology and the establishment of physics at the University of Manchester. Arthur had travelled the Western Himalayas, from Simla through Leh and Ladakh to Srinagar in Kashmir, following an expedition to Thailand to photograph the solar eclipse of 6th April 1875. But the couple married in 1887, so the journey of these Tibetan artefacts must have come later.
Arthur Schuster gave a series of lectures at the University of Calcutta in March 1908. It is possible that the items were collected then. However, two ཀ་པ་ལ (kapala, skull cups) are dated 1905. Perhaps the Schusters were in Tibet then, though this would have been only months after the return of the Younghusband Expedition, or the British Invasion of Tibet, which entered Tibet in December 1903 and left in September 1904. Whenever they were obtained, the Schuster Collection includes objects that would only have become available to outsiders in the aftermath of the massive British military incursion into the country. As well as the tea brick, there are various vessels including richly ornamented ewers used, according to the catalogue cards, ‘for water, wine or tea’.
But there are also sacred artefacts that would have come from monasteries or shrines in aristocratic homes, and some which even today should not be viewed by anyone who has not reached the highest levels of Tantric initiation. Arthur Schuster does not seem to have had any formal links to the Imperial establishment in India, although he moved in elite circles while in Simla in 1875. Does their collection speak to the ease of access to Tibet for European travellers at the time, or to privileged connections that allowed them to enter the newly ‘opened up’ state?
Some of these artefacts were exhibited in the 2014 exhibition Buddha’s Word: The Life of Books in Tibet and Beyond. At the time, we did not know anything about Lady Schuster’s biography. While we do not yet know when the Schusters’ trip to Tibet took place, the collection they made on that journey seems to be located at the interface between European science, scholarship, and empire at the Himalayan frontier.