SOAS University of London

Department of the History of Art and Archaeology, School of Arts

SOAS’ Department of the History of Art and Archaeology is internationally unique in its broad coverage of the visual arts, architecture and material culture of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Spanning geographically from Japan to Morocco and chronologically over millennia, the Department’s range of teaching and research interests is unmatched. No other British, European or American university provides the variety it offers for the study of Asian, African and Middle Eastern art.

The research expertise of the Department supports multidisciplinary research projects and the cultural output of major museums and galleries, including their education and outreach programmes. As well as the international art trade, it supports the conservation and understanding of cultures, arts and artefacts in the SOAS specialist regions of Asia, Africa and the Middle East and their diasporas.

Curating and supporting major exhibitions

Auspicious cranes (detail)

Expertise in the Department is highly sought after in the management of museum exhibitions, including those in the SOAS Brunei Gallery, which has the highest number of visitors of any museum in the Bloomsbury precinct. Anna Contadini, Professor of the History of Islamic Art and Head of the Department, curated Gifts of Recognition: Modern and Contemporary Art from the SOAS Collections, to coincide with the Olympics, attracting over 7,000 visitors, and resulting in a permanent digital archive. Telling Images of China: Narrative and Figure Paintings from the Shanghai Museum, an exhibition at the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin was curated by Dr Shane McCausland, Reader in the History of Art of China, and attracted 45,000 visitors. Tania Tribe, Senior Lecturer in Art History, co-curated The Emperor of Ethiopia in Lusoland: Ethiopia, Portugal and the Organization of African Unity for the Brunei Gallery.

Experts from the Department initiate and contribute to exhibitions and collection catalogues. Dr Shane McCausland’s catalogue essay for the V&A Masterpieces of Chinese Painting provoked a BBC2 Culture Show special, while Dr Stacey Pierson wrote a book on the V&A Chinese ceramics collection for general readers. Louise Tythacott worked as the Consultant Curator for the new China gallery at the Lady Lever Art Gallery, part of National Museums Liverpool, which opened in 2016 (Image below © National Museums Liverpool). 

Lady Lever Art Gallery

The mystery of the Pisa Griffin

Pisa Griffin (1)

Professor Anna Contadini is the director of a research project on the Pisa Griffin and related bronze sculptures.  Probably produced within the Islamic Mediterranean in the eleventh century, the Griffin has incised on its body a long inscription in Arabic expressing good wishes. Captured by the Pisans, it underwent an extraordinary transformation: for centuries it was a terrifying, sound-producing guardian figure on top of the roof of Pisa Cathedral. 

The present project is focused on the Griffin but also includes alongside it a variety of bronze animal sculptures such as a Lion and a Falcon. It is hoped that the interdisciplinary and multi-institutional study of these objects will shed light on their significance within a global Mediterranean culture. Professor Contadini lectured extensively on this project both in Europe, the US and the Middle East, and her research has stimulated outreach activities not just in Pisa but also in the Tuscany region as a whole, and in Cairo, stimulating contemporary artistic activities. It has also attracted a number of PhD students to SOAS who want to undertake study on related subjects.

From scholarly historical research to prize-winning popular fiction

The scholarship of Professor Tim Screech on Japanese history, art and culture inspired and informed a David Mitchell's award winning novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, set in Japan in the late 1700s. Mitchell said: “He is the kind of academic interpreter of history and ideas upon whom more popular interpreters (lower down the food chain) rely… making accessible to interested non-specialists (like me), via primary research, areas of Japanese and East Asian culture which would otherwise lie buried.' Read more...

Museum lectures and outreach

Chinese ceramics class
All members of the Department give museum lectures and lead outreach activities, such as seminars, gallery talks and object-handling sessions. Lucas Nickel, Reader in Chinese Art History and Archaeology and Stacey Pierson, Senior Lecturer in Chinese Ceramics, lead hugely popular study days at the British Museum, and Dr Pierson has given Chinese Ceramic handling sessions at the V&A, British Museum and Hong Kong University Museum of Art.

Tibetan Monastery Collections Today

Chemre

In April 2017, Christian Luczanits, Louise Tythacott and Kunsang Namgyal Lama worked on re-displaying the collections at Chemre Monastery Museum in Ladakh. They documented the existing museum collections (ca. 150 objects), and developed a gallery layout, rationale, themes, object lists and case plans for a new museum space (two floors of approximate 125 square meters each). Of these, the upper floor will be used for displaying objects, the lower floor for books and documents. They presented their rationale and designs to the museum committee during their stay in the monastery. The new museum space is due to open in November 2017. Read more...

Extending impact through consultancy

Chinese terracotta warrior

Dr Nickel was a member of a Specialist Panel to assess research priorities for the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford and was consultant for the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Dr Pierson is Consultant to the V&A Asia Dept and Geffrye Museum, and is a trustee of the Bath Museum of East Asian Art. Timon Screech, Professor of the History of Art, worked on reordering the Mt Kunô Museum, Japan and through his research is helping to secure Japanese National Treasure status for its most famous object. Together with Dr Stacey Pierson he has supported European business development by teaching East Asian cultures to business executives.  

Members of the Department use their expertise to address wider issues of heritage, conservation and education. Dr Nickel has reviewed nominations for World Heritage Sites status for the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), which has a special role as official adviser to UNESCO. Highly significant is the work of Elizabeth Moore, Professor in the Art and Archaeology of South East Asia, with UNESCO: as a member of the World Heritage Nomination Committee, she secured listing of the first site in Myanmar. She has also worked with the government of Dawei province to establish a conservation zone around the proposed deep-water port.

Wall-paintings and manuscript illustrations in Northeastern Africa

Dr Tribe's current research focuses on Christian wall-paintings and manuscript illustrations produced in Northeastern Africa from early Christianity to the eighteenth-century. In particular, she seeks to situate the compositions painted during that period in the Christianized areas of Egypt, Old Nubia (present-day Sudan) and Ethiopia within the wider trade and cultural networks of their time - the African-Mediterranean corridor, the Silk Route and the Red Sea trade. Her work assesses these paintings in relation to the visual production of politically and culturally dominant centres like Byzantium, Cairo or Indo-Portuguese Goa. She also seeks to contextualize these cycles of wall-paintings within their wider cultural and archaeological context. In order to do this, she has invited a team of archaeologists to work with her on the site of the thirteenth-century dynastic rock-cut church of Gannata Maryam and related churches.  

Dr Tribe's Ethiopian research touches communities in rural areas through school programmes, promoting care and sense of ownership; her research has led to tourism and economic reconstruction; and at the request of the religious community she organized funding for a vernacular translation of the key medieval chronicle of the local religious community.

Novel theories challenge conventional understanding of Chinese art history

Dr Lukas Nickel’s archaeological fieldwork, art historical research and philological study have led to his proposition of novel theories that question the conventional wisdom surrounding the influences on, methods of production and historical-contextual details of key genres and elements of the Chinese art historical canon, including the famous Terracotta Warriors. Both in China and internationally, his theories have motivated debate, experimentation, and informed and shifted interpretation amongst those working in a range of cultural institutions as well as the general public. Read more...

Leading commemorations of 400th anniversary of Japan-British relations

Professor Screech initiated and co-chaired the commemorations of the 400th anniversary of Japan-British Relations in 2013-14, raising sponsorship from British Airways, Chugai Pharmaceutical and Mitsubishi among others. The commemorations comprised more than 200 events in Japan and UK. Professor Screech lectured extensively on the significance of this anniversary in the UK and Japan, including at the British Embassy in Japan, Barclays Bank (Japan), the Foreign Press Association (Tokyo) and the Houses of Parliament (Westminster) and numerous Japanese museums. He was also called to the Palace to brief the Crown Prince of Japan (in Japanese). He has been interviewed repeatedly, notably on the BBC Today Programme. At his instigation, the Lord Mayor of London hosted a one-day Seminar and Dinner in the Guildhall for 100 business leaders and VIPs, and a Matsuri (Japanese Festival) was held in Trafalgar Square attended by 80,000 members of the general public. In recognition of his efforts, Professor Screech was sponsored by Unilever to attend the British Business Awards gala dinner at the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan (2013).

Summer School on Chinese objects in museums

In September 2017, Stacey Pierson and Louise Tythacott participated in the European Association of Chinese Studies (EACS) week-long Summer School ‘Hidden in Plain Sight: Materiality, Meaning and Accessibility of Chinese Objects in Local Collections’ at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, Lampeter. Stacey lectured and organised a workshop on Chinese ceramics and gave a tour of the Chinese ceramics collections in the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery in Swansea. Louise lectured on 'Summer Palace' objects in UK and French museums and organised a workshop on planning museum displays on China. 

Stacey Glynn Vivian Art Gallery Tour

Stacey Pierson conducting a tour at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery (Image: Louise Tythacott)