Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

21 May 2024

Burkhard Quessel, Curator for Tibetan, retires from the British Library

At the end of April 2024, Burkhard Quessel retired from the British Library, 27 years after his appointment as Curator for Tibetan collections in 1997. 

Burkhard Quessel (second from left) shows His Holiness the 17th Karmapa a Tibetan manuscript
During a visit to the British Library on 19 May 2017 by the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje (left), Burkhard Quessel (second from left) shows His Holiness a Tibetan manuscript. Second from the right is Kristian Jensen, Head of Collections, while on the right is Chime Rinpoche, a predecessor of Burkhard as Curator for Tibetan at the British Library. Photograph by the British Library (from Karmapa Facebook).  

As well as developing and improving access to the Tibetan collections, one of Burkhard’s major contributions was his work on the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), in order to create consistent standards and guidelines for the description of manuscripts and archival records. He spearheaded the introduction of TEI for the cataloguing of content in Tibetan and other Asian languages at the British Library, and supported colleagues and teams using TEI, most notably for the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project and the International Dunhuang Progamme, and enabled the Library to contribute metadata on Persian manuscripts to Fihrist. Burkhard’s contribution was critical in setting up access strategies for the Sanskrit collection and for Tibetan materials in the Stein and related collections, as well as for the cataloguing of Tibetan materials in the Endangered Archives Programme, such as the printed Sutra shown below. 

Sutra, in Tibetan, xylograph in red and black ink; before 1857
འཕགས་པ་ཏོག་གཟུངས་བཞུགས་སོ།. Sutra, in Tibetan, xylograph in red and black ink; before 1857. Collection of Noyon Hutuktu Danzan Ravjaa Museum, Mongolia. EAP031/1/14.  

Another example of Burkhard’s collegial and collaborative work was his involvement in the Jainpedia project led by the Institute of Jainology in the early 2000s, which resulted in the digitisation of a substantial number of the Library’s Jain manuscripts, the publication of the Catalogue of the Jain manuscripts of the British Library (3 vols., 2006), and a display in the Treasures Gallery. Burkhard also played a major role in the online publishing of A Descriptive Catalogue of the Hodgson Collection in the British Library, London, which was launched in 2011. Most recent achievements include Burkhard's contribution to the AHRC-funded project Transforming Technologies and Buddhist Book Culture, a multi-disciplinary collaboration with the Mongolian Inner Asia Studies Unit (MIASU) at Cambridge University, and the follow-up project Tibetan Book Evolution and Technology (2013-2015) funded by an Inter-European Marie Curie Fellowship.

Writing exercise in Tibetan
Writing exercise in Tibetan, ca. 17th-19th c. Acquired by Aurel Stein 1913-1916 from the Etsin-gol delta, south of Soko-Nor. British Library, IOL Tib M 223 Noc

Burkhard was one of the curators who helped to shape a major exhibition on Buddhism which took place at the British Library from 25 October 2019 to 23 February 2020. As the curator responsible for Tibetan materials, he selected over a dozen objects of Tibetan origin from the Library's collection, carried out research and compiled exhibition labels. With his expertise and in-depth knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism he contributed to the development of a storyline for the exhibition and ensured that objects were handled and displayed with due respect. Shown below is a photograph of one of the exhibition cases with a Tibetan Thangka painting of Padmasambhava, founder of Samye monastery, mounted on the wall, with the caption written for the exhibition by Burkhard.

 
Exhibition case with a Tibetan Thangka painting of Padmasambhava, founder of Samye monastery, mounted on the wall
'Padmasambhava, the ‘Lotus-Born’, is one of the most popular teacher figures in Tibet. He was a master famous for his occult powers. When local demonic forces obstructed the foundation of the first Tibetan monastery in Samye in the 8th century, the king invited him from India to put the demons and deities of Tibet into the service of Buddhism. He is seated on a lotus at the centre of this painting with his two principal consorts on the left and right. Samye is still an active monastery and pilgrimage site in Tibet today. 
Thangka painting, India, 1788–1805. British Library, Add.Or.3048, from the collection of Sir Gore Ousely.'
[Exhibition caption by Burkhard Quessel, Buddhism exhibition, British Library, 2019.]

Burkhard knew the Tibetan collections in the British Library intimately, including where to find Tibetan manuscript material hidden in many different parts of the library. Presented below is Burkhard’s description of one such treasure, an account of Tibet by the Panchen Lama of 1775:

‘In 1774 George Bogle (1746-1781) was sent on a diplomatic mission to Tibet by the British Governor-General of India, Warren Hastings. During the five months he spent in Tashilhunpo at the court of the 3rd Panchen dPal Idan ye shes (1738-1780), he formed a strong relationship with the Panchen Lama or ‘Tashi Lama’ as he was referred to by the British.

Bogle records that during an audience with the Panchen Lama in January 1775, the Lama ‘told me that he would order his people to write down ever particular regarding the laws and customs of the country that I wished to know. I thanked him and told him that I would first give him an account of Europe which from the great curiosity and novelty of the subject would be agreeable to him’ (Mss Eur 226/49). Bogle’s account of Europe for the Tashi Lama was translated into Tibetan and presented to the Panchen on a later occasion.

A copy of the English draft is contained in Mss Eur 226/65 and was published in A. Lamb, Bhutan and Tibet, The Travels of George Bogle and Alexander Hamilton 1774-1777 (Hertingfordbury, 2002). Bogle’s journal mentions that the Lama also kept his promise and provided him with a similar written account on Tibet which is illustrated here. The section shown deals with the early royal history of Tibet.’

[Burkhard Quessel, ‘Account of Tibet by the Panchen Lama’, in: A Cabinet of Oriental Curiosities: an album for Graham Shaw from his colleagues, ed. Annabel Teh Gallop. London: British Library, 2006; no. 19.]

The early royal history of Tibet, from an account of Tibet by the Panchen Lama, written in Tibetan cursive script, presented to George Bogle, 1775
The early royal history of Tibet, from an account of Tibet by the Panchen Lama, written in Tibetan cursive script, presented to George Bogle, 1775. British Library, MSS Eur 226/66. Noc
 
Burkhard Quessel, receiving a farewell gift from his colleagues on his retirement
Burkhard Quessel, receiving a farewell gift from his colleagues on his retirement, 26 April 2024.

Contributed by colleagues in Asian and African Collections and Endangered Archives Programme