17 January 2021

Review of Tantra: enlightenment to revolution British Museum (24 Sept 2020 - 24 Jan 2021) By Kajal Meghani

 Tantra: enlightenment to revolution at the British Museum seeks to demystify Tantric philosophy. Curated by Dr Imma Ramos, the exhibition challenges the visitor to rethink any preconceived notions they have of Tantra, which is often misunderstood as a hedonistic sexual practice. Rather, as the exhibition explains, Tantra is a collection of instructional sacred texts that are written as a dialogue between gods and goddesses. The texts encourage devotees to transcend desire, aversion and fear by actively engaging with the erotic and macabre to view the material world as being animated by the power of divine feminine energy known as shakti.

The exhibition is arranged chronologically and explores the history of Tantra as waves of influence. Starting with its beginnings in sixth-century India, the exhibition’s examination of Tantra continues with its influence on India’s fight for independence from British colonial rule and ends with the impact of Tantric philosophy on 1960s counterculture and contemporary artists across the world. The exhibition features objects from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Tibet, Japan, the UK and the USA, demonstrating materially the far-reaching impact of Tantra.

The first sections of the exhibition opens with the earliest surviving Tantric manuscripts (now in the collection of Cambridge University Library) and temple sculptures representing the goddess or yogini from the museum’s collection. 

Fig 1: Sandstone sculpture of the goddess Chamunda. Photograph: Trustees of the British Museum.
The exhibition shows how Tantra’s profound influence on Hindu and Buddhist thought in medieval India inspired the rise of goddess worship in parts of South Asia. Goddesses associated with Tantra, such as Chamunda, a formidable form of Parvati, the Hindu goddess of fertility and love, were incorporated into the Hindu and Buddhist pantheons. In Buddhism, Tantric thought led to the rise of Vajrayana Buddhism, or the path of the thunderbolt, which spread across parts of Asia and gained a particular stronghold in Tibet.

This part of the exhibition explains the foundations of Tantric philosophy to the visitor and includes an evocative recreation of a 10th-century temple dedicated to yogini worship in Odisha (eastern India). Temples devoted to yogini were circular in design with an open roof to invite yoginis from the sky to enter the sacred space. The immersive recreation enables the visitor to understand how the sculptures on display would have been positioned in relation to one another and to experience the interplay of the building and the sky during worship. 

Fig 2: Recreation of a 10th-century temple dedicated to the worship of yoginis. Photograph: Trustees of the British Museum.

Stereotypical ideas of Tantra associated with yoga and sex are unpicked by the exhibition to show how these practices enabled a devotee to achieve enlightenment. Sculptures and paintings from India, Tibet and Nepal illustrate how practitioners could use their body and senses to awaken their own or their partner’s shakti. This section shows that Tantra not only influenced Buddhist and Hindu thought but also interested Islamic rulers, such as those of the Mughal empire based in northern India and independent Islamic sultanates largely based in Southern India. One of the most fascinating paintings in this section commissioned by a Mughal ruler, possibly Shah Jahan (1592 - 1666), is the depiction of the goddess Bhairavi painted in the 1630s by Mughal court artist Payag (active 1591 - 1658), which is from the Metropolitan Museum. Bhairavi, depicted with red skin, fangs and adorned with a garland and skirt made of human skulls, sits on a decapitated body in a cremation ground with a man, possibly the Hindu god Shiva or a yogi imitating him. The painting was commissioned as a gift by the Mughal ruler to the Hindu ruler of Mewar, Jagat Singh (1607 - 1652), who was a devotee to the goddess Bhairavi.

Fig 3: The Goddess Bhairavi Devi with Shiva. Photograph: The Metropolitan Museum

A section of the exhibition focusing on the use of human remains in Tantric Buddhist practice as a reminder of the impermanence of the body, was developed in consultation and collaboration with members of the Tibetan community in London and scholars of Tibetan Buddhism. Listening to their personal experiences and perspectives on the use of human remains in Tibetan Buddhist practice whilst looking at the display of objects made of human bones provides a unique insight into the display that a museum label may be unable to do. 

Fig 4: Display exploring the influence of Tantra on Tibetan Buddhism. Photograph: DHA Designs

This and the following section of the exhibition, which focus on the role of Tantra during British colonial rule, challenges the language and misconceptions that stemmed from colonial scholarship. During the colonial period, many British officials and missionaries misunderstood Tantra as black magic due to the use of human remains and the depictions of fierce goddesses such as Kali, a Tantric goddess particularly venerated in Bengal that inspired revolutionaries challenging British rule in India.

The final section of the exhibition examines the influence of Tantra on artists based in Asia, the UK and the USA and continues to influence practitioners today. Following the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947, South Asian artists inspired by Tantric philosophy came to be known as the Neo-Tantra movement and the final section of the exhibition displays paintings by Biren De (1926 - 2011), Ghulam Rasool Santosh (1929 - 2007) and Prafulla Mohanti (b. 1936). Tantra’s influence on the UK and USA, is contextualized by the politics and counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, and also touches on the first exhibition of art inspired by Tantra, which took place in 1971 at the Hayward Gallery.

Fig 5: The final section of the exhibition displaying the influence of Tantra on the Neo-Tantra movement. Photography: DHA Designs.

Tantra: enlightenment to revolution is an important exhibition with rich content and interpretation that allows the visitor to develop a nuanced understanding of Tantric philosophy and to see how it influenced religious and cultural beliefs across the world. The exhibition dispels misunderstandings of Tantra being related exclusively to sex and so-called black magic, and contextualizes these ideas within the wider framework of Tantric philosophy whilst also tracing the origins of these misconceptions. This is further explored through a selection of collecting histories of some of the objects in the exhibition found on the museum’s website. The interpretation in the exhibition is clear and the sections that highlight and incorporate community and practitioner voices enable the visitor to gain a multifaceted understanding of Tantra.

Given the current COVID-related restrictions, the exhibition and the British Museum is closed until further notice. Until the exhibition can be visited in person, the Museum’s website features a guided tour of Tantra: enlightenment to revolution, given by its curator, Dr Imma Ramos and features additional content on the Museum’s blog.

Kajal Meghani is a collaborative doctoral award student with the University of Brighton and the British Museum, funded by AHRC

15 January 2021

en/counter/points survey on toolkits - help sought!

 Helen Mears, a researcher at Newcastle University is working on a project which considers the relationship between public space and belonging  The en/counter/points project, funded by HERA, is developing a toolkit to support museum practitioners wishing to explore issues of belonging. Before developing the new resource, they  would like to assess the extent to which museum and heritage practitioners use existing online toolkits and similar resources on any topic and have designed a short survey for this purpose. She asks for your assistance in completing the survey.

For more information regarding toolkits, museums and belonging, please see their summary of existing provision. 

If you have any questions about the survey please contact Helen (helen.mears@newcastle.ac.uk), or about the project please contact Project Leader Susannah Eckersley: susannah.eckersley@newcastle.ac.uk.

5 October 2020

Ipswich Museum seeks World Art Consultants

Ipswich Museum is seeking consultants to ensure that Ipswich Museum’s important World Cultures Collections are better understood, documented and readily accessible to facilitate use in new displays and decolonisation programme. To contribute towards a smooth, well-documented programme of ‘decanting’ collections in advance of building works.


There are 6 packages of work 

Package 1.        Specialist Overview/ report on the World Cultures Collection as a whole

Package 2.        Improving storage and basic documentation – World Cultures collections from Oceania, Indian sub-continent, North America and elsewhere

Package 3.        Improving storage and basic documentation – African Collections

Package 4.        Collections documentation research

Package 5.        Further specific specialist collections advice

Package 6.        Participation in networks with source communities


Regarding package 6, participation in networks with source communities, it is the intention of Museum Staff that current contacts and work in the previous 5 packages will inform and connect us with the appropriate activity, in particular the consultant should include recommendations of projects and contacts that would be useful to the work they are outlining.

Please contact James Mellish, Heritage Project Manager, Ipswich Borough Council for more information on the roles and the tendering process. 


27 August 2020

Buxton Museum and Art Gallery: Objects looking for new homes.

 Buxton Museum and Art Gallery are looking to rehome by free transfer, a number of items from the World Cultures collection that formed part of the former Derbyshire School Library Service. The project is funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, and seeks to find sustainable outcomes for the collection within accredited museums for the continued use of the collection in the public realm for exhibitions, engagement projects and research. The project is guided by the Museums Association Code of Ethics.

The Museum currently has 17 Japanese prints and paintings dating from the 19th to 20th century, and 308 miscellaneous ethnographic objects from around the world and ranging in date from the 19th to 20th century.


If you would like more information about the project and the items and would like to apply for them via an Expression of Interest form, please contact the project lead, Bret Gaunt at: Bret.Gaunt@derbyshire.gov.uk


Closing dates for the applications are:


Japanese prints and paintings: 5pm Friday 25 September.


Miscellaneous ethnography: 5pm Friday 16 October

24 August 2020

Conference: Anthropology and Geography: Dialogues Past, Present and Future

The following conference includes several panels on museums and collections which may be of interest to our members.  


14 - 18 September 2020

The Anthropology and Geography: Dialogues Past, Present and Future conference is jointly organised by the RAI, the RGS, the British Academy, the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at SOAS, and the BM’s Department for Africa, Oceania and the Americas. The conference was originally planned as a face to face conference to be held in June 2020, but it will now be an online conference to be held 14-18 September 2020.
The RAI believes that anthropology and geography should be close, all the more so as the two disciplines have so much in common, both today and in the past. It hopes very much that through this conference, existing dialogues can be explored and further conversations take place on a host of vital issues including the Anthropocene, definitions of ethnology, methodology and fieldwork, contemporary understanding, education and public awareness, and the place of our disciplines in the modern world. We hope equally that this will lead to a shared intellectual understanding of our past and the emergence of the two disciplines, and an even closer engagement in the future, particularly in terms of emerging fields of mutual interest: e.g. digital media, geospatial mapping, and satellite photography.

Informal enquiries may be made to info@therai.org.uk

Registration opens 1 July 2020

Full details can be found on the RAI website. 

Barkcloth Basics: Interpreting and Understanding Pacific Barkcloth

The ‘Barkcloth Basics: Interpreting and Understanding Pacific Barkcloth’ workshops which we had hoped to still take place in our partner museums, unfortunately will not take place because of the continued impact of Covid-19.

However, we are extremely pleased to announce that we will be moving our activities online and will create virtual resources and content that will closely replicate our original plans, while at the same time allowing us to reach an even wider audience than anticipated. We are delighted that our amazing tapa makers and artists Reggie Meredith Fitiao and Uilisone Fitiao will also take part in this new online content.

Together, we will be facilitating a select number of live sessions in which we can interact with museum staff, artists, makers, and the general public and talk about tapa in museum collections, as well as people’s own engagement with Pacific tapa.

The live online sessions will take place between Friday 4 September – Tuesday 8 September, with multiple times to choose from. Due to great demand, we have added the session on the 8th to ensure UK-based museum professionals are able to attend, as Monday’s morning session is already sold out.

 For further information, and to register for a place using Eventbrite, please visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/113743273192. To keep up-to-date with the project, make sure to visit our social media pages (Instagram: @pacifictapa; Twitter: UofG_Barkcloth) and website (https://www.tapa.gla.ac.uk).

26 June 2020

What do world art curators do in lockdown?

Rachel's desk (and coworker) while working from home.
A guest blog from Rachel Heminway Hurst, Curator of World Art, Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove and MEG events officer.  Rachel tells us what she's been up to in lockdown, if you'd like to let us know about your lockdown experience then get in touch!

Towards the end of March I was gearing up for spring conferences, research visits, holiday activities,busy juggling multiple project commitments, with core collections work responsibilities that are on-going and seemingly never ending at times, and will no doubt feel a familiar scenario for most museum staff! When all of a sudden we went into lockdown. I left my office as usual on Monday 16th March thinking I would be back there the next day and haven’t set foot in my office, the museum or the stores since. It still felt like winter then, and now we are enjoying full summer weather and have just passed the longest day of the year. 
Before the lockdown, I was feeling quite overwhelmed by the number of commitments ahead of me, when all of a sudden everything just ground to a halt. One by one events were cancelled, researchers and project partners stopped emailing, our museum postponed moving to Trust on April 1st 2020, and all the competing deadlines just melted away and everything was ‘postponed’, and not just work, it felt like life had been postponed. 

Like many people in the UK, I developed a mild case of the corona virus during the first week of lockdown, and spent 6 weeks on a bit of a rollercoaster of good and not so good days. My head was foggy during this time and I could only concentrate on one thing at a time and gave up trying to multitask and carry on working as normal. I decided that this was an opportunity to focus on just one task, and finish something I had been working on without much success since 2016. 

I usually work from home one day a week and keep a lot of digital work files on my home computer, and I also have a freelance colleague and project curator, Kathleen Lawther, who is tech savvy unlike myself! So we set about completing a web resource that we have only had the time to work on in a piecemeal way up to now. The lockdown allowed me to focus clearly on one project and one goal, and this felt really liberating.

Myself and Helen Mears, Keeper of World Art have been working on the Fashioning Africa Project since 2015, we have been collecting garments, textiles and art that reflect fashion and style in post 1960s Africa and Africa UK diaspora, this work had been guided by an external Collecting Panel. It turned into a huge but extremely rewarding project, including working with numerous partners and donors, hosting many events and papers given at conferences, some objects from the new collection have featured in displays at Brighton Museum, and some objects will be going on loan. But creating our web resource has at last given us a platform on which to share the new collection and most importantly the stories that accompany these objects.

Working with the Collecting Panel meant we were guided by people who are specialists in African Fashion both through personal experience and through academic training. Their input enabled us to source objects that reflected the personal styles and stories of individuals as well as designers and specific communities. Our focus was on building a collection where individuals voices and stories were told, and we collected photographs of donors wearing their outfits, testimonies, quotes, pamphlets and pieces of creative writing that all accompanied the outfits. As well as film footage and oral histories.

We have collected over 400 objects and although we haven’t yet finished professionally photographing them all or processing all of the accompanying media, creating the web resource has enabled us to provide access to a large number of them with their accompanying stories. If it were not for being in lockdown and being able to work on this in a sustained way and daily over the last few months, creating this resource would not have been possible, and this would have been a missed opportunity. I also feel as if I would be letting people down, people trusted us and offered their objects and stories and wanted to share these. When finishing an interview with Ewe kente weavers and twins Fred and Richmond Akpo in Ghana, I asked if there was anything else they wanted to tell us or share and they said ‘We just want people to know we are here and what we do’. 

This work has also afforded me the time to make contact with donors and partners to check information with them, and through this contact, a chance to check in and catch up with one another. So yes other things haven’t got done, which is hugely frustrating - we don’t have collections database access at home and haven’t been able to access the stores or facilitate events and the uncertainty over budgets and resources means other projects are delayed. But I feel that I have really benefitted from this period of time to take stock, to focus on this important work, gather everything together and process it, and get something finished, and I am really pleased to be able to share the results. The question is now, when things begin to pick up and gather momentum, how do I sustain this focus and clarity? I do know that I will make a concerted effort to try and plan in blocks of time to enable this type of important work to happen.  

Rachel Heminway Hurst, Curator of World Art, Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove.