About The Exhibits

Thirty-nine fascinating photographs from hand-tinted lantern slides reveal the dusty glamour of camel caravans, Buddhist monasteries, local rituals, and spectacular scenery of Tibet, China, and Mongolia. The exhibit also features original documents and diaries from the expedition, plus some of the plant and animal specimens collected.

This photographic exhibit is the only record of two early twentieth century explorers, Frederick and Janet Wulsin, who collected plants, animals, and artifacts on a two-year trek through the Mongolian and Tibetan borderlands of China in the early 1920s. In March 1923, the Wulsins launched their most significant expedition, a nine-month trip to central China, sponsored by the National Geographic Society.

They used Graflex and then-new Kodak 4x5 cameras among other equipment to document the people and places they encountered. They developed their film in makeshift darkrooms whenever they came to a location with sufficient water.

The Wulsins' expedition covered more than 750 miles along the north bank of the Yellow River, through the Alashan Desert, and finally into Gansu and Qinghai provinces to the renowned lamaseries in the highlands bordering Tibet. Difficult terrain and unstable weather conditions made for a challenging and dangerous journey along a route that itinerant merchants, religious pilgrims, and Christian missionaries traversed.

Janet Wulsin's daughter is Mabel H. Cabot, who organized the exhibition and authored Vanished Kingdoms: A Woman Explorer in Tibet, China, and Mongolia 1921–1925, the critically acclaimed book that accompanies the exhibition. She says Janet was the chief creative force behind this remarkable collection of photographs:

“She took many of the pictures in the exhibition, carefully developing and cataloguing the negatives each week during the couple's various expeditions. The artistic beauty of the Tibetan, Chinese, and Mongolian landscape images is readily apparent, as she captures both awe-inspiring splendor and intricate details on film. Notably, the great Labuleng, Ta'er, and Zhuoni lamaseries, had never been photographed before. Although the images present a Western interpretation, they nonetheless offer an exceptional window into the art, architecture, and culture of that region of Asia.”

Janet Wulsin's photographs were further brought to life by artisans in Beijing who painstakingly hand-colored these three-inch by four-inch glass slides. The Chinese painters used their knowledge of local customs, colors, and scenery to interpret the images. The result is an intriguing juxtaposition of an American photographer's eye and Chinese design sensibilities.

Sacred Portraits from Tibet
Augmenting the photographs of Vanished Kingdoms through Feb. 4, was Sacred Portraits from Tibet, a display of Burke Museum thangkas—large, delicately painted Tibetan religious paintings. Thangkas typically feature portraits of arhats, or Buddhist saints, and important lamas, or Buddhist teachers. Paintings made between the 17th and early 20th centuries demonstrate not only the rich iconography of Tibetan Buddhist tradition, but also the exquisite painterly skills of the artists in portraiture and illustration.

The exhibit included a thangka of the four-armed Avalotitešvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, painted especially for the Burke by local artist and well-known monk, Dhawa Dhondup Ngoche. One of Ngoche's own traditional Tibetan Buddhist altars was also displayed amongst the thangkas in the exhibit.

Vanished Kingdoms was produced by the Peabody Essex Museum in collaboration with the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University. Both exhibits are sponsored by the Blakemore Foundation with support from the Hugh and Jane Ferguson Foundation, the Sidney Fund, and the Silk Road Foundation. The Burke's presentation of these exhibits has had the active participation and approval of Tibetan religious and community leaders in Seattle.

Merchant's family and young brides.
Frederick and Janet Wulsin

©2006 Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.
This Exhibition is produced by the Peabody Essex Museum in collaboration with the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.