Pleasing the Wrathful Deities: Ethical Approaches to the Care of Tibetan Skull Drums

Richard Mulholland*, Rachael Durkin

*Corresponding author for this work

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In 2023, a number of sacred Tibetan ritual musical instruments fashioned from human tissue were donated to Northumbria University, England. After lengthy consultation with stakeholders, the university took the decision to accept the donation in order to store and care for these objects in a culturally respectful manner. This process involved working closely with the Tibetan diaspora in exile to manage, research and provide access in a culturally sensitive way until such time as they might be returned to their communities of origin. Framing the university’s decision were current and ongoing debates within the heritage sector regarding the ethics of storing, researching and displaying human remains, especially where they belong to cultures from beyond the Global West. However, the cultural and ritual status of these objects, not to mention their geographical origin, is such that they do not fall easily into the same defined status as other historical human remains in western heritage collections. We present here ongoing work to build transparent and sensitive collections and research policies specifically around two Tibetan ritual thöd-rnga skull drums, traditionally used in the Chöd (gCod) ritual practised in Tibetan Tantric (Vajrayana) Buddhism. We situate our work within the complex discourse on caring for contested objects in the UK in the midst of the restitution and decolonisation agendas, before considering the objects themselves as material artefacts, and the ethics of caring for and researching these objects within the context of a university collection.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-7
Number of pages7
JournalStudies in Conservation
Early online date1 Jun 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 1 Jun 2024

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