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, 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 Shane McCausland, Percival David Professor of the History of Art and Head of Department, and attracted 45,000 visitors.

Experts from the Department initiate and contribute to exhibitions and collection catalogues. Professor 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. Dr 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

Tibetan Monastery Collections Today - Update

Tibetan Monastery Collections Today - Ladakh, India

Installation of new museum, Chemde monastery, Ladakh, India in June 2019

In June 2019, during a three-week period of field research as part of the AHRC-funded research Project “Tibetan Buddhist Monastery Collections Today”, Christian Luczanits, Louise Tythacott and Chiara Bellini collaborated with Chemde monastery in Ladakh, India, in moving its museum into a new space. This concluded a three-year engagement during which the project contributed the exhibition concept and a case design that could be implemented with local craftsmanship. The new display includes a number of innovations for the region, such as single sculpture cases, two-sided display and the display of an entire set of scroll paintings in the traditional arrangement. In future, the museum may be complemented by a library, also conceptualised by the project. The new Chemde museum will be opened later in the year by His Holiness the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, leader of the Drukpa Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism.

Tibetan Monastery Collections Today - Kagbeni, Nepal

Tibetan Monastery Collections Today - Kagbeni, Nepal

Initial research on new monastery museum concept in Kagbeni, Nepal from June-July 2019

From June-July 2019, Louise Tythacott undertook fieldwork research in Mustang, in the Himalayan region of Nepal, as part of the AHRC project – “Tibetan Monastery Collections Today” (2016-19). She developed concepts for a planned new museum, which will be located the early 15th century monastery in the village of Kagbeni. Working with Kunzom Thakuri, she documented the monastery’s collections and internal spaces, and conducted 27 interviews in the remote villages of Dakarjhong, Pakling, Phalak, Tiri, as well as in Kagbeni, to ascertain local people’s views on the museum proposal. Future displays will celebrate Buddhist beliefs and traditional cultures in the region. Fundraising will be required over the next few years to develop the monastery’s museum.

An Illuminated Sūtra Collection of the Fourteenth Century

Research on Tibetan Buddhist Monastery Collections Today (link to below) has yielded numerous discoveries. Among those is a collection of Buddhist texts classified as sūtra (that is sermons said to be delivered by the Buddha or sanctioned by him) and dating to the 14th century. This collection has been documented at Namgyal Monastery in Upper Mustang, Nepal. Documenting the collection took three successive visits (2015 to 2017) and more than 10,000 photographs (photo: Christian Luczanits and others examining a volume of the sūtra collection with scenes of the Buddha’s life on the first folio verso in 2015). 

With at least four illuminations in each of the original 30 volumes, 28 of them preserved, this is the oldest collection of Tibetan texts with an illumination programme across all its volumes. The programme includes the previous and last lives of the Buddha as well as an array of deities in a hierarchical arrangement. This illumination programme as well as the fact that the collection also preserves unique versions of the texts it contains warrants a monographic study of this collection which in spring 2019 is in its finishing stages. 

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...

Extending impact through consultancy

Chinese terracotta warrior

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. Highly significant is the work of Elizabeth Moore, Emeritus Professor, 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.

Tibetan Monastery Collections Today


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...

Philanthropic donation to research the provenance of objects from China’s Yuanmingyuan or ‘Summer Palace’ (2017-2019)

In 2017, Louise Tythacott, Pratapaditya Pal Senior Lecturer in Curating and Museology of Asian Art, was awarded a major philanthropic donation to undertake research on the provenance of objects from the Yuanmingyuan, or old ‘Summer Palace’, in Beijing.

Initiated by the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1662-1722) in the early eighteenth century, the ‘Summer Palace’ was developed by the Yongzheng (r.1723-1735) and Qianlong emperors (r. 1736-1795), and used during the eighteenth and nineteenth century as the principle residence of Qing dynasty emperors. It housed part of China’s most important imperial art collection. In October 1860, at the culmination of the Second Opium War, British and French regiments looted the buildings in the Yuanmingyuan: it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of objects were taken from the site, many of these now scattered around the world, in private collections and public museums.

The research project involved detailed research in major museums, libraries, archives and auction houses across the UK, as well as in Paris. Shichun Lei was appointed Research Assistant in 2018, and the project ran until January 2019. It will result in a publication – ‘The Summer Palace Diaspora’ – which analyses the histories and displays of Yuanmingyuan artefacts in Britain and France.

In China, on the trail of the 'last emperor'

In December 2018, Shane McCausland made a lecture tour to China where he presented research on the modernist art world of 1920s Beijing and the former imperial art collection at the court of the 'last emperor', Henry Puyi. SOAS has a close connection with Puyi because his English tutor from 1919-24 was Sir Reginald F. Johnston, Professor of Chinese at SOAS in the early 1930s. The starting point for this research was two artworks, now in SOAS Library, that Puyi gave Johnston. Prof. McCausland's tour began in Nanjing at Southeast University, before moving to Beijing, where he spoke at the Central Academy of Fine Arts and at the Palace Museum.

In Beijing, he viewed artworks in storage at the Beijing Fine Art Academy and at the Palace Museum, courtesy of Mr Yu Hui (pictured). While in the Palace Museum, it was impossible not to pose for a photograph in front of the building that Puyi allocated to Johnston as his office within the palace. 

In the Palace Museum, Beijing in December 2018: (left to right) SOAS PhD Dr Shen Shuchi, Prof. Shane McCausland and Palace Museum curator Dr Xu Wanling, in front of the office building provided by the 'last emperor' Puyi for his English tutor, Reginald F. Johnston, beside the Imperial Garden.

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. Stacey Pierson, Senior Lecturer in Chinese Ceramics, has lead hugely popular study days at the British Museum and given Chinese Ceramic handling sessions at the V&A, British Museum and Hong Kong University Museum of Art.