Musical instruments from Tibet

Written by Karen Kindt, Collection Manager, First Nations Cultures

Queensland Museum holds a very important ethno-musical instrument collection donated by Charles and Kati Marson in 2002.  The collection was amassed over several decades from the 1970s to the late 1990s. Charles Marson travelled and collected extensively, acquiring representative musical instruments from many cultures across the world.

The museum, in partnership with Griffith University, Conservatorium of Music, are the custodians of 830 musical instruments belonging to the Marson Collection.

Tibetan musical instruments in the Marson Collection

Within the Marson Collection there are 25 musical instruments originating from Tibet. These instruments include membranophones (drums, pellet drums); chordophones (lutes); aerophones (trumpets, horns); and idiophones (cymbals, pellet bells, clapper bells).

In Tibetan culture, these instruments would have been used in Tibetan Buddhist religious ceremonies and rituals, community festivals and celebrations.

A selection of Tibetan lutes (chordophones) displayed for the Chenrezig community visit.

Community engagement and knowledge sharing

Interpretation and a greater understanding about these musical instruments have been enhanced through community engagement and knowledge sharing. Recently, the museum invited Chenrezig Buddhist Institute community members, including Tibetan Spiritual Leader, Geshe Phuntsok Tsultrim, to view the Tibetan musical instruments. The visit enabled important contextual information associated with the objects such as, language, cultural norms, geographical information, spiritual belief systems and traditions, to be collected.

This contextual information assists in ‘decolonising’ the collections database, by imbedding First Nations language and narrative in the collections database object records.

L-R Venerable Kartson, Geshe Tsultrim, Karen Kindt, Collection Manager, First Nations Cultures discuss language names and cultural protocols associated with the Tibetan musical instruments.

There is always a display of great joy and excitement when community members connect with objects from their culture and country of origin. This was evident when Geshe Tsultrim took the opportunity to demonstrate how the Dung Chen (collapsible trumpet) is played. The incredibly loud sound created much laughter and surprise. 

This instrument was last played by a Canadian Tibetan Community in the early 1990s, when Charles Marson lent the musical instrument to the community for a special religious occasion. When donating the collection to Queensland Museum, Marson stipulated that the instruments should continue to be used for research, loan and playing purposes.

Geshe Tsultrim (right), demonstrates the sound of a Dung Chen (collapsible trumpet), which is played during traditional Tibetan Buddhist rituals.

Artisan materials and technologies

Many of the instruments are exquisitely handcrafted and ornately decorated, using centuries-old artisan knowledge, skills and techniques.

The materials used to make the instruments include shells, semi-precious stones, wood, animal and human bone and hair, silver, copper, bronze, embroidered silk and cotton textiles and beads made of glass and plastic.

Ornately crafted silver and semi-precious stones decorate a conch shell which has been repurposed as a Dung Dkar (horn).
L-R Geshe Tsultrim discusses with Venerable Kartson, the use of a yak’s tail as a tassel embellishment. The pellet bell regalia is used to adorn a horse, during traditional Tibetan ceremonial and festival events.

The inclusion of human remains (bone) in the musical instruments such as the pellet drums and trumpets, is a traditional Tibetan cultural practice, spanning centuries.

Religious and traditional cultural beliefs systems share an acceptance that beyond death, we can still be ‘of use’ or ‘of service’, to others. Thereby, the incorporation of human remains in these musical instruments invokes new meaning and form and they are no longer regarded as remains as such.

It must be said however, culturally these objects are immensely valued and are always handled with great care and respect.

A Rkang Dung (trumpet) with a human thigh bone (femur) incorporated in the musical instrument.

Future Opportunities

Showcasing the Marson musical instrument collection continues to be a valuable resource for fostering ongoing opportunities to connect and work with multicultural communities across Queensland.

Sharing knowledge about the musical instruments, examining the associated documentation and interrogating the collections database with the aim of ‘decolonising’ the collections’ contextual information helps place our important First Nations communities at the forefront of our museum work.