ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Between Ethnography and Art History: The Biography of a South Asia Collection in Germany


Thilak Nandini - Ruprecht Karl University of Heidelberg, Heidelberg Center for Transcultural Studies, Heidelberg, Germany


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


 This paper contextualises the (seemingly) unlikely accumulation of a prized collection of South Asian antiquities by an ethnographic museum in Germany—the Linden Museum Stuttgart. The museum, which originated as a colonial period enterprise collecting samples and wares of commercial interest, evolved into an ethnographic museum at the turn of the 20th century before seeking to reinvent itself, albeit briefly, in the late 20th century as a museum of fine arts focussed on the ancient civilisations of Asia. This is reflected in the South Asia collection today. While the earliest surviving acquisitions were collected for their commercial or ethnographic interest, from about the 1970s to the 1990s, the museum embarked on a costly state-funded acquisition campaign focussed on ancient and premodern art, mainly sculpture, from India and surrounding “India-influenced” regions. This brief but manic period of collection from the art market defines the South Asia collection to this day. Almost all of the objects in the museum’s ‘permanent exhibition’ on South Asia draw from this collection, even as the institution now seeks to find a path to the future as a progressive ethnographic museum fit for multicultural Germany. The corpus of works accumulated in this period is also at the focus of repatriation requests. Consequently, the ways in which the museum deals with it will determine the future it carves out for itself with respect to South Asia.