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Asian Department

The collections of the Asian Department are very broad in terms of chronology, geography and media. They cover a period of more than 5000 years, from 3,500 BC to the present day, and a huge region that encompasses China, Korea and Japan, South-East Asia, from Burma to Indonesia, Pakistan, India and the other countries of South Asia, Central Asia, from Tibet to the Caspian Sea and the Middle East.

The media represented include prints, photographs and paintings in oils, watercolours and ink on paper and cloth, monumental sculpture and smaller carvings in stone, metal, wood, ivory, jade and other hardstones, metalwork, including jewellery and arms and armour, dress, textiles and carpets, ceramics and glass, and furniture and lacquer.

The Department is divided into three sections: Middle Eastern, South and South-East Asian, and East Asian.

The Ardabil Carpet (detail), Iran, 1539-40. Museum no. 272-1893

The Ardabil Carpet (detail), Iran, 1539-40. Museum no. 272-1893

Middle Eastern

Staff and areas of expertise:

Benjamin Hinson, Assistant Curator
General Enquiries

Moya Carey, Curator
The Iranian world, illustrated manuscripts, scientific instruments, metalwork

Mariam Rosser Owen, Curator
The Arab world, ivory, stucco and stone, ceramics, glass.

Tim Stanley, Senior Curator
The Turkish world, Qurans and unillustrated manuscripts, lacquer, arms and armour, furniture and woodwork.

Salma Tuqan, Curator
Contemporary art from the Middle East


Ascribed to Balchand, Portrait of Mirza Abu'l Hasan 'Itiqad Khan, 1620-30. Museum no. IM.120-1921

Ascribed to Balchand, Portrait of Mirza Abu'l Hasan 'Itiqad Khan, 1620-30. Museum no. IM.120-1921

South and South-East Asian

Staff and areas of expertise:

Nick Barnard, Curator
South Asian jewellery, architecture, architectural models, sculpture, ancient and medieval gardens.

Dominica Blenkinsopp, Office Manager
First point of contact for general enquiries

Sau Fong Chan, Curator (Collections Management)
Chinese, and South-East Asian textiles and dress

John Clarke, Curator
Himalayan architecture, sculpture, painting and decorative art, Burmese and Thai painting, sculpture and decorative art.

Anita Nathwani, Assistant Curator, South Asia & South East Asia general enquires. 

Divia Patel, Curator
South Asia: photography 1840-present, painting and posters 1850-present, contemporary art, design & popular culture.

Emma Edwards, Assistant Curator
South Asia & South East Asia general enquires. 

Susan Stronge, Senior Curator
South Asia: Mughal art of the book, decorative arts and architecture, 19th century decorative arts, painting and decorative arts of the Sikh kingdoms.

East Asian

Shin Young-ok, 'Poetic Spirit '97', woven scroll, 1997. Museum no. FE.50-1999

Shin Young-ok, 'Poetic Spirit '97', woven scroll, 1997. Museum no. FE.50-1999

Staff and areas of expertise:

Rupert Faulkner, Senior Curator
Japanese ceramics, prints and contemporary crafts.

Francesca Henry-Pierre, PA to Keeper and Departmental Administrator
First point of contact for General Enquiries

Julia Hutt, Curator
Japanese lacquer, inro, netsuke and ivory carvings, East Asian fans.

Gregory Irvine, Senior Curator
Japanese metalwork, including cloisonné and arms and armour, masks and performing arts, arts of the Meiji period.

Anna Jackson, Keeper
Japanese textiles and dress, cultural relations between Europe and East Asia.

Rosalie Kim, Samsung Curator of Korean Art 
Joseon domestic architecture and Korean gardens.

Malcolm McNeill, Assistant Curator,
China general enquiries

Josephine Rout, Assistant Curator
Japan General Enquiries

Ming Wilson, Senior Curator
Chinese jade and hardstone carvings, furniture and ceramics.

Hongxing Zhang, Senior Curator
Chinese painting and graphic art, 20th century and contemporary China

Appointments to see objects in store should be addressed as follows:

Main contact details:

General Asian Department e-mail: asia.enquiries@vam.ac.uk

East Asia:
Tel. +44(0)20 7942 2322
Fax. +44 (0)20 7942 2252

Middle East and South and South-East Asia:
Tel. +44(0)20 7942 2244
Fax. +44(0)20 7942 2335

Collecting Asia

The Asian Department was created in 2001 by bringing together the Indian and South-East Asian and East Asian collections with the Museum’s holdings of material from the Middle East, giving the Museum a coherent strategy for all its Asian collections for the first time in its history. The scope of these collections is extremely broad chronologically, geographically and in terms of media. The collections include paintings in oil, watercolour and ink on canvas, paper and cloth, prints and photography, sculpture and carvings in stone, metal, wood, ivory, jade and  other hardstones, metalwork and jewellery, arms and armour, dress, textiles and carpets, ceramics and glass, furniture and lacquer. The process of drawing together the Museum’s collections from the Middle East, Islamic Central Asia, North Africa and Islamic Spain is still underway and when fully assembled the Asian Collections will encompass over 140,000 objects.

The cultures of Asia, whose peoples today represent over 60% of the world’s population, are of great historical depth. At different times and in different ways they have both influenced and been influenced by Western art and culture. Today, Asia is undergoing rapid change and is of great economic, political and cultural significance and this is reflected in the Museum’s collections. The V&A’s world-class Asian collections, together with those of institutions such as the British Museum and the British Library, make London the most important centre for the appreciation and study of Asian art and archaeology outside the countries of origin. The Museum therefore has an important role to play in helping to interpret both historical and contemporary Asian artistic, design and cultural traditions to a growing and changing audience of national and international visitors.

The V&A’s particular strengths lie in the decorative arts and design history, complementing the archaeological focus and numismatic strengths of the British Museum, and the British Library’s focus on manuscripts and the printed book. There is considerable consultation with other institutions in London and throughout the UK, as we continue to build our collections with a national framework in mind.

We aim to continue to build and develop our Asian collections by acquiring securely-provenanced objects illustrating and documenting the history of art, and design throughout Asia. In all spheres where designers are active in international arenas, we work in consultation and collaboration with the Museum's other curatorial departments.

South and South-East Asia

The collections from the South Asian subcontinent (India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) range from ca.2,000 BC to the present and number ca. 60,000 objects. The Museum also holds 13 rich collections from most regions of South-East Asia (Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Indonesia, ca. 3,500 objects) and from the Himalayan region (Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet ca. 1,500 objects).

The collection of Mughal court arts includes some of the most important pieces in the world and the collection of South Asian textiles (ca.10,000 items) is the largest and most important outside the region itself. The collections of South Asian paintings and works on paper (ca. 5,000) and sculpture (ca. 5,000) are, along with those of the British Library and the British Museum respectively, among the finest in the Western World. The V&A’s distinctive strengths also include furniture (ca. 300), musical instruments (ca. 200) and objects relating to the performing arts. The collection is strong in metalwork and decorative arts of the second half of the 19th century, especially items made for exhibition purposes, but does not comprehensively cover earlier periods. The Museum has smaller collections of 20th-century and contemporary material, with works by 20th - and 21st-century artists, (both artists based in the Indian subcontinent and artists of South Asian origin working in the UK) and a significant holding of 20th-century and contemporary Indian film posters – a genre which is important to an understanding of the modern and contemporary visual world of South Asia.

In addition to the ca. 60,000 objects from South Asia already cited, the collection of 19th-century (predominantly architectural site) photographs of South Asia, (ca. 20,000 prints and a large collection of negatives) along with photographic documentation of items of Indian art elsewhere in the V&A, is now recognized to be of high value.
From South-East Asia, the V&A holds a significant collection of 19th-century material from Burma (Myanmar) and further strengths include a good collection of textiles and the UK’s most important collections of early sculptures from Indonesia, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia, and of metalwork from mainland South-East Asia.

The Himalayan consists primarily of sculpture, tangkas (painted scrolls), and ritual and domestic vessels, but also includes important items of dress, personal ornament, arms and armour.

The South and South-East Asian collections originated in the Museum of the East India Company. In the second half of the 19th century the ‘India Museum’ was transferred to the newly established India Office and its broadly based historical collections were developed with a particular focus on arts, manufactures, and economic products, largely through acquisitions from international exhibitions. By the 1870s they included an unrivalled assemblage of then contemporary decorative arts from all of what was then considered ‘Greater India’, i.e. those areas of South-East Asia and the Himalayan regions that had historically been influenced by India, or which were governed by British India. In 1880 the old India Museum was dispersed, and its decorative arts and historical collections were brought together in South Kensington with the decorative art collections that had been developed at the South Kensington Museum.

When the V&A’s collections were rationalised in 1909 and divided into material-based collections and departments, these collections continued to be known as the ‘India Museum’. A new appreciation of early Indian art forms and religious traditions, led to the serious collecting of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain sculpture and of Indian painting in the 1910s and 20s. This continued in a substantial manner in the 1930s, 40s and 50s under the Department’s Keepers, K de Burgh Codrington and W B Archer. In the mid-1950s, the old ‘India Museum’ was demolished, and the collection’s displays, now much reduced in scale, were moved to the main South Kensington site, but the broad pattern of collecting both historical and contemporary sculpture, painting and the decorative arts and design has continued since that date.

In the case of the South Asian historical collections, we aim to acquire selective examples of sculpture of the Gupta and medieval periods and court art from the 16th to 19th century, as well as paintings from both religious and secular traditions, early examples of South Asian textiles (including trade textiles), types of 18th - and 19th-century furniture and metalwork and objects made for everyday use. With regard to South-East Asia we aim to consolidate our holdings of sculpture, painted works and textiles. We also hope to strengthen the Himalayan collection by the judicious addition of examples of early painting (12th-14th centuries) and sculpture, and of early 20th-century textiles which represent the traditional culture of the region.

In the case of post-1900 works, we aim to increase our South Asian holdings in all media to reflect changes in society, technology and the use of raw materials. In the sphere of paintings, drawings and prints we will continue to work closely with the British Museum in the acquisition of works that reflect more indigenous traditions and with the V&A’s Western collections with regard to the work of artists whose approach is more self-consciously international. The Department also intends to collaborate with South Asian institutions and individuals to develop  its collection of contemporary handloom/hand-dyed/hand-printed textiles from the traditional and modern design arenas by purchase and commission. Recent years have also seen the rapid development of a South Asian fashion industry, much of it based on a revival and elaboration of indigenous types of dress. We aim to collect and document key examples of modern and contemporary clothing, fashion and textiles. We also aim to acquire examples of craft and product design relating to the domestic interior. We plan to focus on the major strengths of our South-East Asian and Himalayan collections by acquiring selective examples of contemporary paintings, hand-crafted textiles and decorative arts material.

East Asia

The collections from East Asia consist of ca. 65,100 items from China, Japan and Korea. They include objects from China (ca. 16,000 items) ranging from archaeological material of the 4th millennium BC to 21st-century items, Japanese material (ca. 48,500 items) primarily from the 16th century to the present, and Korean material (ca. 600 items) from the Silla period (400-600 AD) to the present.

The Museum has collected material from the East Asia since its inception. Important donations and bequests during the course of the 20th century, coupled with determined scholarship and collecting by individual curators, led to major strengths. These included acquisitions from the Salting, Eumorfopoulos, Hildburgh, Alexander and Le Blond collections, and the curatorial achievements of Rackham, W B Honey and John Ayers in the fields of Chinese and Korean ceramics, and G Wingfield Digby for Japanese textiles.

The East Asian collections were assembled from the materials-based departments of the Museum in 1970. They encompass the largest and most extensive museum collection of East Asian ceramics (totalling ca. 9,000 items), and East Asian furniture and textiles (over 4,000) in the UK, while the collections of Chinese export art and Japanese prints (over 30,000), inro (ca. 570 items) and lacquer (ca. 2,000 items) are among the finest in the western world.

Further strengths are Chinese metalwork and carvings (ca. 1,500 items), Japanese netsuke (ca. 860 items) and swords and sword fittings (over 5,000 items). In the case of Korea, the V&A, in common with other institutions, had made no attempt to acquire Korean artefacts systematically. This continued to be the case until recently – one acquisition or so per year over the period 1920-1990 was the norm. The Korean collection is thus smaller in scale (ca. 700 items) than the Chinese and Japanese collections, but is strong in textiles and furniture, ceramics, metalwork and lacquer-ware.

Since 1980, there has been a consistent focus on modern and contemporary collecting. Twentieth century Chinese artefacts have been collected in a conscious effort to map the period and now constitute an impressive group perhaps unmatched outside China. Contemporary Japanese crafts, which the Museum has been collecting actively since the late 1980s, are another particular strength.

In the case of East Asia we continue to collect historical material selectively to augment and enrich our existing collections and to allow for the rotation of sensitive material such as Chinese painting and calligraphy. At the time of writing, we are in the process of developing through acquisition the most extensive museum collection of Japanese cloisonné enamels in the world. In the modern and contemporary sphere, with regard to Japan, we work with the material-based departments of the Museum to collect the products of Japanese designers active in international arenas such as fashion, graphics and interior design. We particularly concentrate our own collecting on Japanese dress and Japanese studio crafts. With the display opportunities presented by the Samsung Gallery, we aim to continue the past two decades’ focus by concentrating our Korean acquisitions on contemporary Korean crafts in a traditional idiom, particularly focusing on textiles and dress, ceramics, lacquer, metalwork and paper. For China, we aim to demonstrate 20th - and 21st -century design traditions by acquiring objects that develop historical crafts already represented in the V&A collections, particularly in the sphere of dress and graphic arts.

Middle East

The V&A holds over 10,000 items from the Middle East in the Islamic period, excluding the collection of ceramic sherds. Until 2002, when staff with relevant expertise were appointed to the Asian Department, this world-class collection remained divided among the Museum’s materials-based departments. Transfer of the Middle Eastern collections to the Asian Department’s care has been carried out in tandem with gallery development projects and is now well under way.

The importance of the V&A collection in the field of Islamic art from the Middle East lies partly in its size and quality but also in the early date at which the collecting process began. The V&A was the first institution in the world to form a systematic and purposeful collection of Islamic art, the founders of the Museum seeing it as a key source for the reform of British design. Objects were first acquired by purchase from the European market and then, from the 1860s, by purchase from international expositions and by sending agents into the field. The foundation of the outstanding Iranian collections, for example, was the acquiring of pieces for the Museum by Sir Robert Murdoch Smith in Iran in the 1870s. The Museum also received major bequests from private collectors such as Captain W.J. Myers and George Salting. The last significant spate of acquisitions was made in the 1980s, when major items, particularly of ceramics, were acquired at auction.

The date range of the collection begins with the rise of Islam in the 7th century. A programme of activities in 20th-century and contemporary art and design from the Middle East has now begun to address the need to build 20th and 21st century collections. The V&A’s collections are strongest in their representation of Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Syria and Iraq, but also include objects from Spain under Muslim rule, North Africa (Morocco to Libya), the aucasus republics, and Afghanistan and the former Soviet Central Asia, most notably Uzbekistan. The collections include holdings of ceramics, textiles, metalwork and woodwork that are remarkable for their size and range. The ceramics collection is internationally the most important and comprehensive of its kind (3,500 objects and ca. 8,000 sherds). It is particularly strong in Iranian wares and tiles of all countries. The textiles collection is of equally substantial range and importance (ca. 3,600 items). It includes most famously the huge 16th century carpet from the shrine at Ardabil in Iran. The metalwork collection, which includes vessels, jewellery, and arms and armour, is also of world importance. The woodwork collection has areas of significance such as Mamluk carved wood. There are also smaller but significant collections of carving in ivory, rock crystal and stone, which include the unrivalled Fatimid rock crystal ewer.

The process of drawing together the Museum's collections from the Middle East, Islamic Central Asia, North Africa and Islamic Spain is still under way.

At the same time, we are making judicious acquisitions in areas not adequately represented in the V&A collections. Anticipating future gallery developments we have recently acquired figurative qalamkari textiles from Iran. Other collecting priorities are becoming apparent as the transfer of collections progresses: we have a good collection of metalwork from the 13th to 16th centuries and of Iranian metalwork of later periods, for example, but our coverage of earlier metalwork and more recent non-Iranian metalwork is poor.

Until recently, the Museum had no examples of 20th-century material from the Middle East. We are therefore beginning to collect Middle Eastern 20th-century and contemporary works, working with colleagues in the V&A’s western departments and with other national and regional institutions. Major ceramics items are being acquired in liaison with the V&A’s Ceramics and Glass section and the Middle Eastern Department in the British Museum. A major initiative in the contemporary field has been the Jameel Prize for contemporary work inspired by Islamic tradition, first awarded in July 2009. Collecting contemporary photography from the Middle East has been stimulated by collaborative acquisitions realised in cooperation with the Photography section of the V&A's Word and Image Department and the British Museum, generously funded by The Art Fund.

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