ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

12 – South Asian Collections in European Museums: Examining their acquisition, display, and futures

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a large corpus of objects from South Asia1 entered museums in Europe, enabled by growing European colonialism and imperialism.


Shreya Gupta - University of Exeter, UK and Ashmolean Museum
Niti Acharya - University of Lincoln, UK and The British Museum
Habiba Insaf - Humboldt University, Berlin

Long Abstract

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a large corpus of objects from South Asia1 entered museums in Europe, enabled by growing European colonialism and imperialism. Today these displaced objects are faced with one, the thorny issue of repatriation, two; demands to decolonise them from colonial knowledge systems and three, a pressing need to prove their relevance to South Asian diaspora and local communities.
However, discourses around these ‘in-between’ objects2 run into a cul de sac as little is known of how they were acquired, by whom and under what circumstances. How have these objects been understood? What role can these objects play today in fostering connections with their ‘source communities’ as well as conveying the complexities of South Asian cultures to audiences in Europe?
This panel will address questions concerning the history of acquisition, politics of display, and future of South Asian objects in Europe. We invite contributions concerning:

  • Histories of collecting and transfer of these objects to Europe
  • Histories of their institutional formation as part of European museums
  • Life and biographies of collectors involved —European and South Asian —and their collecting praxis as mediated by intersecting identities including ethnicity, gender, and class
  • Biographies of such displaced objects
  • The display, interpretation, and exhibition of these objects in European museums in the past and today
  • Insights into how museum documentation practices record knowledge of objects from South Asia and related challenges and opportunities
  • The future of these collections in Europe with respect to concerns regarding restitution, relevance, and reinterpretation


Colonial Archives: the history, discovery, and access of South Asian colonial records in the UK
Carter Alia - University College London, London, United Kingdom
New Answers to an Old Problem: What to do with the Library of Tipu Sultan?
Ehrlich Joshua - University of Macau, History, Macau, Macau
South Asian Coins in UK Museums: Tracing the Histories of Collecting Coins in Colonial India
Gupta Shreya - University of Exeter and Ashmolean Museum, History, Exeter and Oxford, United Kingdom
“Curator for a day”: Developing strategies to engage with permanent exhibitions
Hartig Anne - Museum Fünf Kontinente, South and Southeast Asian Department, Munich, Germany
Amaravati sculptures sent to London in 1819-1820
Howes Jennifer - Independent scholar, London, United Kingdom
Biography of a Naga Object: Movements, Transformations and Continuities
Insaf Habiba - Humboldt University,Berlin, Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage, Berlin, Germany
Tales in Steps: Revisiting the “transnational custodianship” of Santal Cultural Memory
(Re)Creating the Authentic: The Many Lives of the Sanchi Gateways in Berlin Museums
Singh Parul - Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, 4A_Lab, Berlin, Germany
South Asia in a former Second City of Empire: Reimagining the South Asian Collection at Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland (NMoS)
Voigt Friederike - National Museums Scotland, Global Arts, Cultures and Design, Edinburgh, United Kingdom