SOAS University of London

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

Collecting and Curating Buddhist Art in the Museum

Module Code:
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Taught in:
Term 2

The course explores the collecting, curating and display of Buddhist art in museums. It begins by examining the transformations of Buddhist images as they move from sacred contexts in Asia to museums in the West. It discusses the collecting of Buddhist images by Europeans, especially in the 19th century, focussing on key individuals such as Younghusband, Bell, Horniman, Stein, Guimet and Cernuschi. Contemporary ethical issues involved in the conservation and display of Buddhist artefacts are explored, and several weeks focus in-depth on cases studies of the ‘lives’ of specific Buddhist images. The course analyses the practical processes involved in curating displays devoted to Buddhism, and compares Buddhist galleries in museums in Europe, North America and Asia. The course will also include visits to displays of Buddhist objects at museums in London (such as the British Museum and the V&A). 


  • Students enrol via the online Module Sign-Up system. Students are advised of the timing of this process via email by the Faculty Office.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

  •  identify the various contexts for the reception of Buddhist art in the West
    via the formation of private collections and the development of taste in Buddhist art.
  •  appreciate the shifting significance and values ascribed to Buddhist objects placed in different museum contexts over the past 150 years.
  •  assess the role of the museum (historically and currently) in the production of meaning and value to Buddhist objects, via practices of collecting, conservation and display.
  •  identify a range of issues specific to the display and conservation of Buddhist art in museums and the processes involved in exhibiting Buddhist objects in a selection of museums in Europe, North America and Asia.
  •  demonstrate an understanding of the biographical approach to key Buddhist artefacts in Western collections.


  • One hour Lecture, one hour Seminar

Method of assessment

  • One 500 words presentation (worth 20%)
  • One 2 500 words essay (worth 80%)

Suggested reading

  • Arthur, Chris (2000) ‘Exhibiting the sacred’, in Godly Things: Museums, Objects and Religion, Paine, Crispin (ed), Leicester:  Leicester University Press, pp 1-27.
  • Bouquet, Mary and Porto, Nuno (2005) Science, Magic and Religion: The Ritual Process of Museum Magic, Oxford: Berghahn.  
  • Chuang , Yiao-hwei (1993) An Investigation into the Exhibition of Buddhist Objects in British Museums, PhD thesis. Leicester: University of Leicester.
  • Chuang, Yiao-hwei (2000) ‘Presenting Buddhism in Museums’, in Godly Things: Museums, Objects and Religion, Paine, Crispin (ed), Leicester:  Leicester University Press, pp 107-119.
  • Duncan, Carol (1995) Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums. London and New York:  Routledge.
  • French, Patrick (2004) Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer, London: Harper Perennial.
  • Gaskell, Ivan (2003) ‘Sacred to Profane and Back Again’, in Art and its Publics: Museum Studies at the Millennium, Andrew McClellan (ed) London:  Blackwell, pp 149-62.
  • Gell, Alfred (1998) Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Giebelhausen, Michaela (2003) The Architecture of the Museum: Symbolic Structures, Urban Contexts, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.
  • Gombrich, Richard (1966) ‘The Consecration of a Buddhist Image’ in Journal of Asian Studies 26 (1). November, pp 23-36.  
  • Grimes, Ronald (1992) ‘Sacred Objects in Museums Spaces’ in Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuse 21 (4), pp 419-30.
  • Hall, Annie (2004) ‘A Case Study on the Ethical Considerations for an Intervention upon a Tibetan Religious Sculpture’, in The Conservator 28, pp 66-73.  
  • Harris, Clare (2012) The Museum on the Roof of the World: Art, Politics and the Representation of Tibet, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
  • Kieschnick, John (2003) The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.   
  • Kopytoff, Igor (1986) ‘The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditisation as Process’, in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Arjun Appadurai (ed), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp 64-91.
  • Kreps, Christina (2011) ‘Non-Western Models of Museums and Curation in Cross-Cultural Perspective’, in  A Companion to Museum Studies,  Sharon Macdonald (ed). Oxford: Wiley- Blackwell, pp 457-472.
  • MacLeod, Suzanne (2011) 'Out of Time and Place: The recent history and curious double life of the Sultanganj Buddha', in Sculpture and the Museum, Marshall, Chris (ed.), Aldershot: Ashgate/Henry Moore Institute, pp 153-175.
  • Martin, Emma (2012) ‘Charles Bell’s collections of ‘curios’: acquisitions and encounters during a Himalayan Journey’, in Narrating objects, collecting stories: Essays in honour of professor Susan M. Pearce, Dudley, Sandra et al (ed), Oxon: New York: Routledge, pp 167-183.
  • Maunder, Michelle (2000) ‘The conservation of sacred objects’ in Godly Things: Museums, Objects and Religion, in Paine, Crispin (ed,) Leicester: Leicester University Press, pp 197-209.
  • McArthur, Meher (2004) Reading Buddhist Art: An Illustrated Guide to Buddhist Signs & Symbols, London.
  • O’Doherty, Brian (1986) Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.
  • O’Neill, Mark (1999) ‘Making Histories of Religion’ in Making Histories in Museums, in Gaynor Kavanagh (ed), London: Leicester University Press, pp 188-199.
  • Paine, Crispin (2000) Godly Things: Museums, Objects and Religion, Leicester:  Leicester University Press.
  • Paine, Crispin (2013) Religious Objects in Museums: Private Lives and Public Duties, London: Bloomsbury.
  • Pye, Elizabeth (2001), Caring for the Past; Issues in Conservation for Archaeology and Museums, London: James and James.
  • Reedy, Chandra (1991). ‘The Opening of a Consecrated Tibetan Bronze with Interior Contents: Scholarly, Conservation, and Ethic Considerations’ in Journal of the American Institute of Conservation 30 (1), pp 13-34.
  • Seckel, Dietricj (1964) The Art of Buddhism, New York: Crown Publishers.
  • Seckel, Dietrich (1989) Buddhist Art of East Asia, Washington: Western Washington University.
    Tythacott, Louise (2011) The Lives of Chinese Objects: Buddhism, Imperialism and Display, New York and Oxford: Berghahn.
  • Tythacott, Louise (forthcoming) ‘Curating the Sacred: Representing Buddhism in Museums’ in Abstracta in Concreta, Harrison, Victoria (ed), London: Routledge.
  • Wang, Helen (ed) (2012) Sir Aurel Stein, Colleagues and Collections, London: British Museum Publications.
  • Wang, Helen and John Perkins (eds.) (2008) Handbook to the Collections of Sir Aurel Stein in the UK, London: British Museum Publications
  • Whitfield, Roderick (1985) The Art of Central Asia: The Stein Collection in the British Museum: Textiles, Sculpture and Other Arts, Tokyo: Kodansha International.
  • Whitfield, Susan & Frances Wood (eds.) (1996) Dunhuang and Turfan: Contents and Conservation of Ancient Documents from Central Asia, London: British: Library.
  • Wingfield, Christopher (2010) ‘Touching the Buddha: encounters with a charismatic object’ in Sandra Dudley (ed) Museum materialities: objects, engagements, interpretations, London and New York: Routledge, pp 53-70.
  • Zwalf, Wladimir (1985) Buddhism: Art and Faith, London: British Museum Press.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules