1. The Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South East Asia opens on 10 November.

Looking East

It is 25 years since the elegant Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia opened at the British Museum. It has been closed for refurbishment but now work has been completed and the splendid new gallery (Room 33) will re-open on 10 November.

With innovative lighting and design, the gallery presents the rich and intricate history of China from 5000 BC to the present day. Research has shown that, early on, China was joined to the rest of Eurasia across the steppe and by sea, as well as along the famous Silk Roads.

The new display gives a fresh narrative of China and South Asia, bringing the story up to the present day with the addition of different types of objects, such as paintings, prints and textiles, which need regulated conditions, which are now in place. The environmentally controlled gallery also allows fine examples of calligraphy and ink painting to be shown in regularly changing displays. So the spectacular modern work of the experimental calligrapher Gu Ganis sits alongside the earliest scroll to reach Britain, which arrived at the end of the 1700s. Objects from China of exceptionally high quality, made of jade, silk and porcelain, are displayed in their historical contexts. 

On entering the gallery (1), visitors first see a set of magnificent Ming dynasty dragon tiles. These beautiful, large, high-relief tiles were used to form a series of friezes showing blue-and-yellow dragons among lotuses. For many years, they were part of a garden screen but, originally, they ran along the ridge of a building in Shanxi province, supposedly protecting it from fire as, strangely, dragons are associated with the control of the water supply. 

The South Asia displays in the gallery are also presented chronologically, though regional variety is greater here than in the China exhibits. The earliest material is 1.5 million years old and, among the prehistoric displays, objects from the Indus Valley Civilisation, including enigmatic seals with still undeciphered script, are the most important. The birth, development and arrival of South Asia's diverse religious traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, Sikhism and Christianity are all explored through artefacts from the museum's extraordinarily rich collections.

Political and economic change is highlighted through sculpture, painting, textiles and everyday objects. New to the displays are the Mughal period, the Rajput rulers, and India under British rule, followed by South Asia since independence in 1947. Textiles and paintings from all these periods are on show for the first time.

One highlight is the renowned stone sculptures from Amaravati (a Buddhist shrine founded in about 200 BC), the most important group of sculptures from Asia housed in the British Museum and the largest group of early Indian sculpture anywhere outside South Asia. More than 120 sculptures from the site are in the Asahi Shimbun Gallery (Room 33a).

Among the newly-acquired works of art on display in the gallery for the first time are: the outstanding 6th-century sculpture of Lakshmi from Kashmir; the poignant 2008 installation work by the Bangladeshi artist Naeem Mohaieman, Kazi in Noman's Land, which records the extraordinary story of the Bengali poet Nazrul Islam (1899–1976) and also a beautiful contemporary porcelain butterfly robe. 

• (For further information visit www.british museum.org)
Lindsay Fulcher


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