ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Exhibiting Gandhara in Italian Museums: Buddhist Art between Pakistan and Italy


Amstutz Andrew - University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Department of History, Little Rock, United States


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


How were ancient Buddhist artifacts exhibited and interpreted in Italian museums?  What does the history of the collection of Buddhist art objects from Pakistan in Italy offer contemporary debates over decolonization and reinterpretation in museums? To answer these questions, this paper examines the politics of display of sculptures from the ancient Buddhist region of Gandhara (in contemporary northwest Pakistan and Afghanistan) in Italian museums in the 1950s and 1960s. Following the establishment of the Italian Archaeological Mission to Pakistan in 1955, Italian archaeologists played an important role in the excavation of Buddhist artifacts in Pakistan. In turn, Italian museums acquired some of the largest collections of Gandharan art outside of South Asia. This paper follows the transnational collaborations surrounding the first major exhibits of Buddhist sculptures from Gandhara in Torino and Rome from 1958 to 1963. My paper argues that Pakistani and Italian curators both fostered cultural connections through the exhibit of Buddhist art objects and debated their interpretation in the context of the Cold War. Specifically, Buddhist artifacts were re-used and re-coded to exhibit (and imagine) an ancient history for Pakistan and global ties for postwar Italy. In so doing, my paper contributes to scholarship on Italian collections of South Asian objects and on the reinterpretation of South Asian collections that were acquired by European museums in the postcolonial period.