5 South Asian Collections in UK Museums & Galleries

South Asians have had a historic impact on UK culture and lifestyle. We look at the top galleries and museums documenting this journey.

5 South Asian Collections in UK Museums & Galleries

Pieces include an 18th-century turban ornament

The UK’s cultural landscape is enriched by the diverse heritage of the South Asian community.

They have contributed to the country’s artistic and creative scenes through migration, resilience, and innovation.

However, there is a growing concern about preserving and making accessible this invaluable artistic legacy.

In response to this imperative, various institutions across the UK have undertaken remarkable initiatives to safeguard and celebrate South Asian arts and culture.

These museums and galleries have comprehensive collections of textiles, paintings, and sculptures, as well as innovative gallery spaces that foster cross-cultural dialogue.

They epitomise the UK’s commitment to promoting the lasting impact of the South Asian diaspora.

We dive into the pioneering efforts of these venues, exploring their contributions and work towards a more representative landscape. 

South Asian Diaspora Arts Archive

5 South Asian Collections in UK Museums & Galleries

Based in Birmingham, UK, SADAA originally emerged as SALIDAA, the South Asian Diaspora Literature and Arts Archive, in 1999.

It was established by a collective of concerned academics, experts, and practitioners within the realm of South Asian literature and arts.

Their motivation stemmed from the growing apprehension regarding the disappearance or inaccessibility of invaluable works by South Asian writers and artists.

These works, which played a pivotal role in shaping the creative landscape of the UK post-Partition, were deemed crucial to preserve.

Spanning literature, performing arts, visual arts, and more, the contributions of displaced or relocated South Asian practitioners form an integral part of Britain’s historical narrative.

SADAA’s primary objective is to gather, safeguard, and leverage these artistic endeavours. 

The SADAA digital archive encompasses five primary subject areas: literature, visual arts, theatre, dance, and music.

Within its digital repository, a diverse array of text-based and visual materials is featured.

This includes excerpts from fiction, poetry, and plays, alongside manuscripts, artists’ notes, leaflets, stage and costume designs, song lyrics, and music scores.

These artefacts collectively represent the extensive body of work crafted by South Asian writers, artists, performers, and musicians in England since 1947.

While predominantly in English, SADAA has plans for future expansions, including the addition of materials in South Asian languages, as well as the incorporation of audio-visual content.

Moreover, there is a vision to broaden the archive’s scope to encompass materials predating 1947, with aspirations to include film-related content in its collection.

Victoria and Albert Museum

5 South Asian Collections in UK Museums & Galleries

The V&A in London constitutes a network of museums devoted to celebrating the potential of creativity.

Through a myriad of avenues such as exhibitions and digital platforms, its national collection boasts over 2.8 million artefacts spanning 5,000 years.

Within the collections originating from South and Southeast Asia lies an extensive array of nearly 60,000 objects, encompassing approximately 10,000 textiles and 6,000 paintings.

These objects encapsulate the cultural richness of the Indian subcontinent south of the Himalayas, including countries such as India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.

The collection’s notable strengths lie in its assortment of Mughal miniature paintings and decorative arts, particularly jades and rock crystal items.

Additionally, the collection boasts remarkable Indian sculptures, especially bronzes, along with Indian furniture designed for Western markets, 19th-century photographs of India, and Burmese decorative arts.

Other significant holdings encompass jewellery, ceramics, glassware, lacquerware, basketry, and woodwork.

Noteworthy inclusions are Tibetan ‘tangkas’, as well as Indian film posters and ephemera.

Furthermore, the collection features contemporary artworks from India and Pakistan, showcasing significant contributions from several prominent artists.

Highlighted pieces include an 18th-century turban ornament, a wine cup attributed to Shah Jahan from 1657, and an ikat sari designed by Neeru Kumar, created for Tulsi in 2013 from Odisha, India.

Leeds Museums & Galleries

5 South Asian Collections in UK Museums & Galleries

In Leeds, a vibrant and diverse South Asian community has been firmly established.

Dating back to the 50s, 60s, and 70s, many individuals from India and Pakistan migrated to Leeds for work opportunities.

The presence of South Asian restaurants, fashion outlets, and community hubs is conspicuous throughout the city.

Leeds Museums and Galleries curate a collection of over 1,200 South Asian objects, ranging from unique artefacts to everyday items.

These objects reflect a historical narrative shaped by Leeds residents travelling and working in Asia during the era of British colonial rule, as well as collectors in the UK acquiring Asian art.

Additionally, many items have been generously donated by individuals of South Asian heritage, often comprising clothing, culinary utensils, and personal or community photographs.

The collection predominantly features objects from India, totalling over 1,000, followed by Pakistan with over 100 items.

This distribution is due to historical ties between Britain and India and the growth of Indian communities in West Yorkshire.

Among the oldest items in the Leeds collection are Palaeolithic stone hand axes, donated in 1963.

Additionally, there are Neolithic hand tools from Banda in Uttar Pradesh.

Seton-Karr, the son of an Indian Civil Service official, amassed these artefacts, which look at the presence of prehistoric communities in India over a million years ago.

The South Asia Collection

5 South Asian Collections in UK Museums & Galleries

The South Asia Collection in Norwich finds its origins in the explorations undertaken by Philip and Jeannie Millward throughout South Asia during the 70s.

Their initial acquisitions were sourced from the Swat Valley and stored in a Waterworks Road facility in Norwich.

Housed within a meticulously restored Victorian roller skating rink, the South Asia Collection stands a mere 100 meters from the bustling marketplace. 

In 1993, Philip and Jeannie Millward acquired the building and embarked on an extensive renovation project.

Presently, visitors can admire exhibition displays and intricately carved architectural elements sourced from South Asia.

The museum features an exhibition detailing the building’s rich history, encompassing its opening night festivities, the vaudeville performances, and enigmatic remarks concerning the quality of entertainment offered.

Today, The South Asia Collection stands as a globally significant repository showcasing the everyday arts and crafts of the region.

Its diverse offerings include embroidered, woven, and printed textiles; paintings and prints spanning from the 18th century to the contemporary era.

It also has vernacular furniture; elaborately carved arches, doors, and columns; votive figures; as well as a splendid array of religious and domestic artefacts representing the myriad communities and cultures of South Asia.

Manchester Museum 

5 South Asian Collections in UK Museums & Galleries

Manchester Museum envisions fostering understanding among cultures and nurturing a more sustainable world, guided by its core values of inclusivity, imagination, and compassion.

Their commitment to inclusivity entails fostering greater collaboration and co-production while centring diverse perspectives to ensure relevance to the communities they serve.

The South Asia Gallery, a collaborative venture with the British Museum, offers a contemporary portrayal of South Asian and British Asian cultures.

It is the UK’s inaugural permanent gallery dedicated to the South Asian diaspora.

The museum showcases world-class artefacts from the British Museum alongside exemplary pieces from South Asian collections in Manchester.

Additionally, it was designed and constructed in collaboration with the South Asia Gallery Collective – an inspiring assembly of community leaders, educators, artists, historians, journalists, and scientists.

It is clear that these initiatives go beyond simple preservation; rather, they symbolise a strong dedication to inclusivity, creativity, and cross-cultural dialogue. 

The importance of these museums and galleries reaches viewers all over the world.

By honouring the contributions made by the South Asian diaspora to British society, these venues show the value of cultural heritage.

Balraj is a spirited Creative Writing MA graduate. He loves open discussions and his passions are fitness, music, fashion, and poetry. One of his favourite quotes is “One day or day one. You decide.”

Images courtesy of Instagram, Museum & Galleries.

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