About a Tibetan at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C

About a Tibetan at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C

Bhuchung K. Tsering

Those who are familiar with the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., particularly its Asian Division, would be aware of its documents on Tibet, whose Tibetan-language collection is said to be one of the largest in the West. The collection ranges from Tibetan Buddhist scriptures to a Tibetan Almanac of 1762. It is interesting that this almanac is for the Water Horse Year in the thirteenth Rabjung cycle and is part of the Rockhill Tibetan Collection.  William Rockhill was an American diplomat who had a good collection of Tibetan materials during his time in China in the early 20th century.

As the Library of Congress itself explains, “The Tibetan collection of the Library of Congress began in 1901 with a presentation of 57 xylographs and eight manuscripts acquired by William Woodville Rockhill, U.S. Minister to China, during his travels in Mongolia and Tibet from 1888 to 1892. Between 1901 and 1928 approximately 920 original xylographs and manuscripts were acquired for the Library primarily by Rockhill, Berthold Laufer, and Joseph Rock. Currently, the collection is one of the largest in the West, consisting of approximately 9,000 volumes, made up of hundreds of individual titles.”

However, there is  a Tibetan in the Library of Congress about whom you may not have heard.  Even I, who have been visiting the Library of Congress of and on for the past several years knew of the Tibetan just recently. He is in the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building, one of the buildings near the Capitol.

This Tibetan is one of the 33 “ethnological heads” that are serving as keystone ornaments on the first story and is located on the West front , facing the Capitol.

"Tibetan" on a keystone of a first story pavilion window. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.
“Tibetan” on a keystone of a first story pavilion window. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.

I will let the Library of Congress expand on this.

“One of the Jefferson Building’s most striking exterior features are the thirty-three ethnological heads that surround it, serving as keystone ornaments of the first story windows. Otis T. Mason, curator of the Department of Ethnology in the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, was the special advisor for this project. In Herbert Small’s 1897 Handbook of the New Library of Congress, this undertaking is described as “the first instance of a comprehensive attempt to make ethnological science contribute to the architectural decoration of an important public building.”

“The heads themselves, created by William Boyd and Henry Jackson Ellicott, were based on information provided by Professor Mason. The list of the races represented, as described by Small, and the location of the keystones follow.

Starting at the north end of the front entrance pavilion, the first head is that of a Russian Slav, located beneath the portico bust of Demosthenes. Continuing across the west front, the heads are: Blonde European; Brunette European; Modern Greek; Persian (Iranian);

On the south side: Circassian; Hindu; Hungarian (Magyar); Semite, or Jew; Arab (Bedouin); Turk

On the east side: Modern Egyptian (Hamite); Abyssinian; Malay; Polynesian; Australian; Negrito (Indian Archipeligo); Sudan Negro; Akka (Dwarf African Negro); Fuegian; Botocudo (South America); Pueblo Indian (Zunis of New Mexico);

On the north side: Esquimaux; Plains Indians (Sioux, Cheyenne, Comanche); Samoyede (Finn); Korean; Japanese; Ainu (northern Japan);

On the west front: Burman; Tibetan; Chinese”

Whether or not this “Tibetan” resembles a Tibetan, I am still wondering why a Tibetan was chosen to be part of the Library of Congress’s “ethonological science” collection. Also, I wonder what the background story is and who was the Tibetan model.

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