History of the collection: Asia


The British Museum’s founding collection – formed by Sir Hans Sloane in the eighteenth century – contained a number of objects from Asia. These were acquired as contemporary items at the time, a collection policy which continues to the present as part of the programme of fieldwork, research and publication in the Department of Asia.  The department aims to represent all aspects of Asian culture, history and civilisation.


The work of Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks, Keeper of the Department of British and Medieval Antiquities from 1866 to 1896, inspired great interest in Asian culture, ethnography and history. Franks used his influence and connections to make many additions to the collection, such as the gifts from archaeologist Sir Alexander Cunningham, first Director of the Archaeological Survey of India. Cunningham’s presentation included sculptures, inscriptions, coins and reliquaries.

One of Franks’ many legacies was a continued interest in Asia at the Museum, the first organisational result coming in 1912 when a separate sub-Department of Oriental Prints and Drawings was created under Laurence Binyon, a connoisseur of Persian and Indian miniatures.

In 1880 the India Museum, which had been home to the collections of the East India Company, was closed and its exhibits dispersed amongst various institutions including the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Archaeological objects and sculptures, such as the Masson stupa-finds from Afghanistan and the Amaravati collection, were transferred to the British Museum.

In 1933 the Department of Oriental Antiquities was created to bring together collections hitherto scattered across four departments in the British Museum. The Department of Oriental Antiquities and Ethnography joined this new department in 1946 on the retirement of its Keeper Hermann Justus Braunholtz. The combined collections made Oriental Antiquities one of the leading repositories of Asian material in Europe.

The first Keeper was Basil Gray, a scholar of Chinese, Islamic and Indian art. During his tenure the department acquired the bronzes, paintings and books of Edward Moor, one of the first westerners to write on India iconography in the early nineteenth century.

In 2003 the Departments of Oriental Antiquities and Japanese Antiquities merged to become the Department of Asia. In 2005 the remaining Ethnography collections from Asia, over 20,000 items, joined the new Department.

The work of the department today includes an active programme of contemporary collecting in all parts of Asia, a tradition which is integral to the Museum’s mission and which dates back to the first collections of Sir Hans Sloane.

Collection and acquisition

A collection of Japanese material acquired from the family of the German physician Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716) was part of the original collection of Sir Hans Sloane. Other early acquisitions in the eighteenth century included Indian seals and wooden sculpture from the collection of the celebrated antiquary Charles Townley.

The nineteenth century was an active period for South Asia collecting. In 1830 Sir Robert Brownrigg gifted a gilded bronze figure of Tara which had been found in the jungles of Sri Lanka. The Bridge Collection of Indian sculpture was acquired in 1872 through Augustus Franks. This material was first acquired by Charles ‘Hindoo’ Stuart, the first European to take an interest in Indian art and aesthetics.

The department now holds the most comprehensive collection of sculpture from the Indian subcontinent in the world. It includes the celebrated Buddhist reliefs from Amaravati, the Bimaran reliquary from Afghanistan, and the inscribed lion capital from Mathura which make the first known reference to the Sarvastivada school of Mahayana Buddhism.

The collection of Chinese antiquities includes paintings, porcelain, lacquer, bronze, jade and applied arts.  From central Asia come the department’s collection of paintings from Dunhuang, key works for understanding the diffusion of Buddhism in Asia. The Japanese collection include an important group of objects from the Kofun period collected by William Gowland (1842-1922), a collection of swords from the R.W. Lloyd bequest, and a collection of rare ritual masks donated by Mr Nobutaka Oka in 1999.

The collections from Southeast Asia include material from Burma/Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, Philippines, and East Timor, spanning more than eight millennia. The highly diverse materials gathered over the past two hundred years comprise textiles, sculpture, painting, everyday objects, posters, ceramics, archaeological material, puppets and masks, musical instruments, jewellery, baskets, coins and banknotes, weapons, lacquer, tattooing equipment, market weights, models, religious items, and amulets. Particularly well-known is the Sir Stamford Raffles collection of Javanese theatrical objects and drawings of ancient monuments.

Like all departments at the British Museum, the Department of Asia follows UNESCO guidelines for new acquisitions. Moreover the department does not normally acquire objects which have left the countries of South Asia after Independence in 1947.