A Tibetan Sculpture

Brief object description

Object number: 12.11.51/7.30
Owner: Horniman Museum and Gardens
Probable date: Obtained in the 1870s in Ladakh, India
Photo credit: Angelica Isa
Image reproduction permission: Horniman Museum and Gardens

This is a painted figure of Maitreya, the future Buddha. It's made up of a textile base and covered in unbaked clay. The image was painted and gilded in some areas. The Maitreya Budda is recognised by his "western" sitting posistion (on a throne) instead of cross-legged on the floor, and by the position of his hands in the Dharmacakramudrâ as he teaches the Dharma.

State before conservation

The sculpture before conservation Photo of the sculpture before conservation.

Lost ornaments Some figure ornaments had been completely lost.

Broken ornaments Other ornaments were broken and hanging dangerously loose.

Misshapen base The base was somewhat misshapen, creating cracks in its back wall. Note the curvature at the bottom.

At some point, this sculpture would have been filled with special prayers and sealed at the base, constituting a sacred, ritualised image. However, at some point in the past, it was open to obtain the prayers, and the figure lost its ritual use.

In spite of this "desecration", as it is a representation of the Buddha, believers consider it a part of the Buddha's body, which must be treated with the appropriate respect. I was lucky enough to be able to talk with Lama Zangmo in London and ask for her thoughts and opinions on object treatment before any conservation and restoration took place.

Conservation process

Conservation was divided into three steps:

  1. Superficial cleaning Dry cleaning tests Cleaning is a destructive process which cannot be undone. Tests must always be carried out before starting a cleaning intervention.

  2. Structural reinforcement Reinforcement of base The base was straightened and reinforced with conservation appropriate materials.

  3. Restoration of missing ornaments Reconstruction of ornaments After careful review of other images of Maitreya, simplified ornaments were carved out of plaster. Simplified ornaments Ornaments were coloured accordingly.

After conservation

Back of Maitreya's head after conservation Back of Maitreya's head after conservation. The added ornaments are superficially attached for easy removal and coloured according to exhibition lighting (as opposed to laboratory white light).

Straightened base Straightened, strengthened base after conservation. Curvature is gone.

Figure under exhibition lighting Figure under low-level lighting. This figure was intended for a temporary exhibition, so the reduced lighting allowed for more minimal interventions.

Figure under white light Sculpture under white lighting.


This conservation process was carried out in 2013-2014 with the generous guidance of the staff at the Horniman Museum and Gardens, in London. I would also like to thank Lama Zangmo (Kagyu Samye Dzong London), Mr. Phuntsog Wangyal (Tibetan Foundation) and Mr. Tom Crowley (The Horniman Museum) for their invaluable guidance during this project.

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