Dalai Lama opens leading Tibetan art collection in Basel

The Dalai Lama and the Swiss interior minister, Ruth Dreifuss, met at the start of the Tibet exhibition Keystone

During a two-day visit to Switzerland, the Tibetan spiritual leader urged the West to keep an open dialogue with China while remaining firm on the core issues of democratic reforms.

This content was published on May 7, 2001 minutes

Engaging in a public debate with the chief pastor of the cathedral in Basel on Saturday, the exiled Tibetan leader said it was important for peoples of all races and religions to understand each other. "Therefore I welcome the rich collection of Tibetan art in your city," he said during the talk, which was transmitted to a screen in Basel's cathedral square and followed by a crowd of several thousand.

The world-famous Essen collection, the life's work of a German theological scholar, Gerd-Wolfgang Essen, was donated to the Museum der Kulturen (museum of the cultures) in Basel in 1998. The permanent exhibition opened its doors to the public for the first time in its new home on Sunday in the presence of the Dalai Lama and the Swiss interior minister, Ruth Dreifuss.

At a press conference on Saturday, the Tibetan leader spoke about Tibetan art and culture and their connection with political issues. While some aspects of Tibetan culture should be preserved - such as tolerance and the regard for the environment - others "become history", the Dalai Lama said.

By way of example, he said government systems needed to change with time. In line with his long-held vow to make way for an elected leader once the Chinese authorities allow the Tibetan government to resume its rightful place in Tibet, the Dalai Lama announced that he would now step down even before a return of his government from exile in India became possible.

"After 42 years of a government and parliament in exile, the head of the exile government should be an elected one. We are currently involved in an election process and will have an elected leader in a few months," he said.

Asked to comment on the policy of the new US administration towards China, the Dalai Lama cautioned restraint. "To isolate China isn't good for anyone," he said. "China must be brought into the mainstream of the world community. [The West] should minimise suspicion [on Beijing's part]."

At the same time, the West should "stand firm in the principal matters of democracy, human rights, and religious freedom, which includes the Tibetan question", he added.

He reiterated that the Tibetan exile government's goal for a political settlement with Beijing was autonomy, not independence.

While the Tibetan situation on the ground seemed "almost hopeless sometimes" - with increased repression, growing demographic imbalance due to a large influx of Chinese, and a growing lack of spiritual teachers - the Dalai Lama said he was not without hope. China would have to follow the global trend towards democratisation eventually, he asserted.

The Dalai Lama said it was fitting that one of the world's leading permanent Tibetan art collections was in Switzerland. "When we asked the US in the early 1960s to accept Tibetan refugees they refused, whereas little Switzerland accepted 1,000 refugees voluntarily," he said in an interview with the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (of which swissinfo is an integral part).

With 2,500 Tibetans now living in Switzerland, the community is the most important Tibetan exile community outside India. About a third of its members were born in Switzerland.

The Essen collection includes 750 works of Tibetan art. With its two hundred scroll paintings and several hundred statues, it is considered the world's finest collection of iconographic Tibetan art, according to Clara Wilpert, director of the Museum der Kulturen Basel. The collection also includes ritual utensils, masks, musical instruments, books and temple furniture and textiles.

The collection, which Essen wanted to sell to keep it in its entirety, was originally destined for Taiwan. When the financial crisis in East Asia in 1998 delayed the transaction, Wilpert sought and found a donor in Catherine Oeri, a leading businesswoman and patron in Basel, who bought it and donated it to the Museum der Kulturen, Switzerland's largest ethnographic museum.

Asked in the interview whether he would like to see the return of the collection to Tibet in the event of a normalisation of the political situation there, the Dalai Lama said it could be appropriate for "some" of the art works to be returned. But he added that Tibet's relationship with the world was crucial, and that "therefore some portion [of the collection] should permanently remain in Switzerland".

By Markus Haefliger

In compliance with the JTI standards

In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

Contributions under this article have been turned off. You can find an overview of ongoing debates with our journalists here. Please join us!

If you want to start a conversation about a topic raised in this article or want to report factual errors, email us at

Share this story

Change your password

Do you really want to delete your profile?