Curating the Sacred: Buddhism and Hinduism on display

Key information

Start date
End date
Year of study
Term 2
Module code
FHEQ Level
Department of History of Art and Archaeology

Module overview

This module will explore the curating, exhibiting and display of Buddhism and Hinduism in institutions (museums, galleries, auction houses, and so forth) worldwide. In doing so, it investigates the question of sacred space in museums and the displaying of sacred objects in general.

It begins by problematizing the transformations of Buddhist and Hindu objects as they move from sacred contexts in Asia to museums in the West. It analyzes the interpretive and museological frameworks under which this occurs, looking at case studies in both non-western and western contexts. The module examines a range of curatorial strategies, methodologies and paradigms of knowledge production employed by exhibitions and museums.

The module also looks at the collecting histories and strategies of the major Buddhist and Hindu museum collections worldwide. Doing so provides students with a thorough understanding of these collections and how they continue to play an integral role in the shaping and production of knowledge particularly in regard to the disciplines of the art history and archaeology of Buddhism and Hinduism.


  • 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

  • evaluate the strategies and practices by which museums interpret, organize and display Buddhist and Hindu objects within diverse cultural contexts.
  • be conversant with the key issues and debates surround the curating of Buddhism and Hinduism.
  • apply key concepts in museological theory to the critical analysis of displays of Buddhism and Hinduism.
  • form a deeper knowledge of the major Buddhist and Hindu collections in institutions worldwide.
  • situate the production of knowledge of Buddhism and Hinduism within in a global historical context.


  • One hour lecture, one hour seminar

Scope and syllabus

The following or similar themes may be covered. The module will also include visits to local museums

  1. Sacred objects and the Museum effect
  2. Collecting Hindu and Buddhist Art in the West.
  3. The multiple interpretations of a set of Buddhist statues - from 15th century China to World Museum Liverpool
  4. Ethical issues in the display and conservation of Buddhist and Hindu deity figures
  5. Lost Kingdoms: Displaying Hindu-Buddhist Southeast Asia in the United States.
  6. Selling the sacred: The commodification of Buddhist and Hindu objects.
  7. Hindu Deities as works of Art: Museum displays in the West and India.
  8. Curating Buddhism in Japan: the role of religious museums.
  9. Worshipping in the Museum: Case studies and strategies.

Method of assessment

  • 750-1,000-word review of an exhibition catalogue or exhibition (online or physical) (worth 30% of marks)
  • 1,800-2,000-word research essay (worth 60%)
  • Group presentation: Displaying a Buddhist or Hindu object (worth 10%)

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