The Department of Asia covers the material and visual cultures of Asia, a vast geographical area embracing East, South and Southeast Asia, parts of Central Asia, and extending to Siberia. The collection spans the Neolithic, from about 5000 BC, to the present day. Represented societies and groups range from complex urban civilisations to largely rural communities; they also include the distinctive cultures and ways of life of indigenous people and other minority groups. Contemporary art and artefacts, in addition to strategic acquisitions of important historic works, fit in exciting ways into the Department’s active collecting programme.
Key areas include a large and comprehensive collection of sculpture from the Indian subcontinent, including the celebrated limestone Buddhist reliefs from Amaravati, and an outstanding range of early Japanese antiquities and graphic art.
The Chinese collection includes the Buddhist paintings from the Dunhuang caves in Central Asia and the Admonitions of the Court Instructress (also called the Admonitions scroll), widely regarded as the most important scroll-painting in the history of Chinese art. It also includes examples of lacquer, bronze, jade, Chinese ceramics, and porcelain. The department also has one of the earliest and largest ethnographic collections of textiles and everyday objects from Southeast Asia.
Elsewhere in the Museum, Near Eastern archaeology and Islam are covered by the Department of the Middle East, the pre-Neolithic by the Department of Britain, Europe and Prehistory , while coins from the region are kept in the Department of Coins and Medals.
China and South Asia (Room 33)
The Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery
Prehistory – present
One half of the gallery presents the histories of China from 5000 BC to the present.
From iconic Ming dynasty blue-and-white porcelain to delicate handscrolls, from magnificent Tang dynasty tomb figurines to modern works of art, the displays feature the richness of art and material culture in China, including painting, prints, jade, bronze, lacquer and ceramics.
The other half of the gallery presents South Asia’s many histories chronologically and by region, from early human occupation to the present.
Highlights include seals from the Indus civilisation, superb south Indian sculptures of Shiva and one of the finest statues of the goddess Tara from Sri Lanka. Sophisticated paintings and objects from the courts of the Mughal emperors can be seen alongside 20th-century paintings, including by the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.
India: Amaravati (Room 33a)
The Asahi Shimbun Gallery
3rd century BC – 3rd century AD
Buddhism originated in north India and spread to other parts of the subcontinent in the third century BC. The Great Shrine of Amaravati, founded around 200 BC in what is now the state of Andhra Pradesh in the south-east, was one of the oldest, largest and most important Buddhist monuments in ancient India.
The shrine, with its solid, domed structure, was a stupa and probably contained a relic – perhaps of a famous teacher. Devotees honoured the enshrined relic by walking around the stupa in a clockwise direction. While doing so, they could also benefit by viewing scenes from the Life of the Buddha sculpted on the railing that surrounded the walkway. Some devotees gave money for the decoration of the stupa and these gifts are recorded in inscriptions.
Chinese jade (Room 33b)
The Selwyn and Ellie Alleyne Gallery
About 5000 BC – present
In China, jade has been a material of the highest value since ancient times, prized for its beauty and magical properties. The objects on display in this exquisite gallery, reopening after a major refurbishment, illustrate the history of the exotic stone. Translucent yet tough, jade was worked into ornaments, ceremonial weapons and ritual objects by Chinese craftspeople.
Most of the jades on show here are on loan from the collection of Sir Joseph Hotung and demonstrate many different types of workmanship. They range from long, smooth Neolithic blades to later plaques, ornaments, dragons, human sculptures and intricate eighteenth century pendants. The refurbished gallery also now includes new acquisitions of contemporary jades, to bring the story up to the present.
Department of Asia
The scope of the Department of Asia is extremely broad; its collections of over 75,000 objects cover the material culture of the whole Asian continent (from East, South, Central and South-East Asia) and from the Neolithic up to the present day. Until recently, this department concentrated on collecting Oriental antiquities from urban or semi-urban societies across the Asian continent. Many of those objects were collected by colonial officers and explorers in former parts of the British Empire, especially the Indian subcontinent. Examples include the collections made by individuals such as Charles Stuart, James Prinsep, Charles Masson, Sir Alexander Cunningham, Sir Harold Deane and Sir John Marshall. A large number of Chinese antiquities were purchased from the Anglo-Greek banker George Eumorfopoulos in the 1930s. In the second half of the twentieth century, the museum greatly benefited from the bequest of the philanthropist PT Brooke Sewell, which allowed the department to purchase many objects and fill in gaps in the collection.
In 2004, the ethnographic collections from Asia were transferred to the department. These reflect the diverse environment of the largest continent in the world and range from India to China, the Middle East to Japan. Much of the ethnographic material comes from objects originally owned by tribal cultures and hunter-gatherers, many of whose way of life has disappeared in the last century. Particularly valuable collections are from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (much assembled by the British naval officer Maurice Portman), Sri Lanka (especially through the colonial administrator Hugh Nevill), Northern Thailand, south-west China, the Ainu of Hokaidu in Japan (chief among them the collection of the Scottish zoologist John Anderson), Siberia and the islands of South-East Asia, especially Borneo. The latter benefited from the purchase in 1905 of the Sarawak collection put together by Dr Charles Hose, as well as from other colonial officers such as Edward A Jeffreys. In addition, a unique and valuable group of objects from Java, including shadow puppets and a gamelan musical set, was assembled by Sir Stamford Raffles.
The principal gallery devoted to Asian art in the museum is Gallery 33 with its comprehensive display of Chinese, Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asian objects. An adjacent gallery showcases the Amaravati sculptures and monuments. Other galleries on the upper floors are devoted to its Japanese, Korean, painting and calligraphy, and Chinese ceramics collections.
Key highlights of the collections include:
The most comprehensive collection of sculpture from the Indian subcontinent in the world, including the celebrated Buddhist limestone reliefs from Amaravati excavated by Sir Walter Elliot
An outstanding collection of Chinese antiquities, paintings, and porcelain, lacquer, bronze, jade, and other applied arts
The most comprehensive collection of Japanese pre-20th century art in the Western world, many of which originally belonged to the surgeon William Anderson and diplomat Ernest Mason Satow
A large collection of Chinese ritual bronzes, (from c. 1500 BC onwards)
Huixian Bronze Hu, an identical pair of bronze vessels from the Eastern Zhou period, China, (5th century BC)
Japanese antiquities from the Kofun period excavated by the pioneering archaeologist William Gowland, (3rd–6th centuries AD)
The famous Admonitions Scroll by Chinese artist Gu Kaizhi, (344–406 AD)
The colossal Amitābha Buddha from Hancui, China, (585 AD)
A set of ceramic Tang dynasty tomb figures of Liu Tingxun, (c.728 AD)
Seated Luohan from Yixian, one from a set of eight surviving statues, China, (907–1125 AD)
A fine assemblage of Buddhist paintings from Dunhuang, western China, collected by the British-Hungarian explorer Aurel Stein, (5th–11th centuries AD)
Pericival David collection of Chinese ceramics, (10th–18th centuries AD)
Ivory stand in the form of a seated lion, Chos-‘khor-yan-rtse monastery in Tibet, (13th century AD)
Pair of ceramic Kakiemon elephants from Japan, (17th century AD)
Japanese prints including The Great Wave off Kanagawa, (1829–32)
Excavated objects from the Indus Valley sites of Mohenjo-daro, and Harappa, Pakistan, (2500–2000 BC)
Sandstone fragment of a Pillar of Ashoka with Brahmi inscription from Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, India, (238 BC)
The Kulu Vase found near a monastery in Himachal Pradesh, one of the earliest examples of figurative art from the sub-continent, northern India, (1st century BC)
Copper plate from Taxila, with important Kharoshthi inscription, Pakistan, (1st century BC – 1st century AD)
Indo-Scythian sandstone Mathura Lion Capital and Bracket figure from one of the gateways to the Great Stupa at Sanchi, central India, (1st century AD)
Bimaran Casket and Wardak Vase, reliquaries from ancient stupas in Afghanistan, (1st–2nd centuries AD)
Relic deposits from the stupas at Manikyala, Ahin Posh, Sanchi and Gudivada, (1st–3rd centuries AD)
Seated Buddha from Gandhara, and other Gandhara objects from Kafir Kot, Jamal Garhi and Takht-i-Bahi, Pakistan, (1st–3rd centuries AD)
The Buddhapad Hoard of bronze images from southern India, (6th–8th centuries AD)
Stone statue of Buddha from the Sultanganj hoard, Bihar, eastern India. (7th–8th centuries AD)
Statue of Tara from Sri Lanka and the Thanjavur Shiva from Tamil Nadu, southern India, (8th century & 10th century AD)
Statue of the goddess Ambika found at Dhar in central India, (1034 AD)
Sculpture of the two Jain tirthankaras Rishabhanatha and Mahavira, Orissa, India, 11th–12th century AD
Earthenware tazza from the Phùng Nguyên culture, northern Vietnam, (2000–1500 BC)
Pottery vessels and sherds from the ancient site of Ban Chiang, Thailand, (10th–1st centuries BC)
Bronze bell from Klang, Malaysia, (2nd century BC)
Group of six Buddhist clay votive plaques found in a cave in Patania, Penang, Malaysia (6th–11th centuries AD)
The famous Sambas Treasure of buddhist gold and silver figures from west Borneo, Indonesia, (8th–9th centuries AD)
Two stone Buddha heads from the temple at Borobodur in Java, Indonesia, (9th century AD)
Sandstone Champa figure of a rampant lion, Vietnam, (11th century AD)
Stone figure representing the upper part of an eleven-headed Avalokiteśvara, Cambodia, (12th century AD)
Bronze figure of a seated Buddha from Bagan, Burma, (12th–13th centuries AD)
Hoard of Southern Song dynasty ceramic vessels excavated at Pinagbayanan, Taysan Municipality, Philippines, (12th–13th centuries AD)
Statue of the Goddess Mamaki from Candi Jago, eastern Java, Indonesia, (13th–14th centuries AD)
Inscribed bronze figure of a Buddha from Fang District, part of a large SE Asian collection amassed by the Norwegian explorer Carl Bock, Thailand, (1540 AD)
British Museum, London, United Kingdom
The British Museum, located in the Bloomsbury area of London, United Kingdom, is a public institution dedicated to human history, art and culture. Its permanent collection numbers some 8 million works, and is among the largest and most comprehensive in existence having been widely sourced during the era of the British Empire, and documenting the story of human culture from its beginnings to the present. It’s the first national public museum in the world.
The British Museum was established in 1753, largely based on the collections of the physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane. The museum first opened to the public on 15 January 1759, in Montagu House, on the site of the current building. Its expansion over the following two and a half centuries was largely a result of expanding British colonisation and has resulted in the creation of several branch institutions, the first being the British Museum of Natural History in South Kensington in 1881 (it is nowadays simply called the Natural History Museum).
In 1973, the British Library Act 1972 detached the library department from the British Museum, but it continued to host the now separated British Library in the same Reading Room and building as the museum until 1997. The museum is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and as with all other national museums in the United Kingdom it charges no admission fee, except for loan exhibitions.
In 2013 the museum received a record 6.7 million visitors, an increase of 20% from the previous year. Popular exhibitions including “Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” and “Ice Age Art” are credited with helping fuel the increase in visitors. Plans were announced in September 2014 to recreate the entire building along with all exhibits in the video game Minecraft in conjunction with members of the public.