The SOAS collections are extensive, important and intriguing, and for the present exhibition a remarkable variety of material has been chosen to represent them, comprising manuscripts, rare books, wall-hangings, textiles, ceramics, metalwork, sculptures, maps, photographs and documents of historical interest.
They demonstrate the extraordinary diversity of the regions with which SOAS is concerned, with pieces on display representing various cultures of East Asia, South East Asia, South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East, and Africa.
The reason for the variety of the SOAS holdings is to be found in the history of the institution itself and, especially, in its unique status as the one institution in Great Britain exclusively devoted to the study of Asia and Africa. In consequence, it has attracted over the years a number of significant donations that have contributed many valuable items to a steadily expanding collection of art objects, rare books and manuscripts.
Central to the concept of Objects of Instruction is the creation of a space, ‘The Foyle Special Collections Gallery’, for the permanent display of material from the SOAS collections, allowing us all to gain greater knowledge of, and pleasure from, the outstanding achievements of Asian and African artistic traditions. The present exhibition, which concentrates on representative highlights, will be followed by others with a particular thematic emphasis.
Their aim will be both to inform an interested public and to play a vital part in teaching and cultural engagement programmes at SOAS. Like most other western collections of Asian and African material, the SOAS holdings can, at least in part, be set in the context of Britain’s colonial and imperial past, and a section of the display is entitled ‘European Views of Asia and Africa’.
Reflecting the impressions of European scholars and travellers, it shows something of the disparity in their reactions. The exhibition, likewise, invites our reactions and critical responses. By enabling greater understanding and appreciation of the richness and multiplicity of Asian and African artistic traditions in the context of an academic institution, the pieces displayed become, precisely, Objects of Instruction.