During Aurel Stein’s four major expeditions in Central Asia from 1910 to 1930, the second one, sponsored by the British Museum and the Government of India, resulted in the acquisition of 24 cases of manuscripts and 5 cases of paintings and textiles from the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang. After gaining the trust of the Daoist monk Wang Yuanlu – the discoverer and custodian of the Grottoes, Stein obtained the pieces at a price so low that even he himself could not believe.
The Dunhuang artefacts were stacked for centuries in a sealed library, undisplayed, and then transferred from a dark cave in China to a dark basement in London, rarely shown.
Although regarded as ‘key works for understanding the diffusion of Buddhism in Asia’, the Dunhuang materials were only publically displayed twice at the British Museum in 1914 and 1990. The moral issue behind the acquisition has been raised in recent decades when ‘apologies are demanded for all manner of historical removals’. From this perspective, I will trace the display and the non-display of Dunhuang materials at the British Museum, and discuss the politics of display, categorisation and interpretation, in regard to the development of British cultural institutions.
Stein’s Dunhuang acquisitions were transferred to London in 1909 and displayed as ‘Sir Aurel Stein’s collection from Chinese Turkestan in 1914’ on the occasion of the Royal Opening of the King Edward VII Galleries. Characteristic examples were selected, classified, and occupied the whole ground floor of the gallery. Grouped by medium, pictorial and textual materials, they were not ordered chronologically or thematically. Although most manuscripts were dated and identified, the labels were poorly prepared, depriving the objects of their original contextual and religious significance.
At the beginning of the exhibition, a ‘painting on silk, crumpled into a bundle’ was displayed to demonstrate the original condition of the paintings when discovered, demonstrating the value placed on the discovery that salvaged artefacts from a ‘buried civilisation’. As a matter of fact, the British Museum’s command of world civilisation was gained from the discovery and collection of foreign objects acquired throughout British colonial history. As Wingfield argues that from the end of the nineteenth century, through the display of artefacts at the British Museum, Britain positioned itself ‘as the culmination of global history and the most developed form of “civilization” of the world had ever seen’.
Descriptions of objects, albeit much detailed, were solely based on works by Whitfield, Stein, and Arthur while no Chinese scholars or other Stein Collection holders were involved
After the first display, two-fifths of Dunhuang artefacts remained in Britain according to percentage of sponsorship yet were kept unseen until 1990. Nevertheless, they were appropriated as national property and closely involved in the development of the cultural institutions as well as re-categorisation and movement of objects within the country. For example, Dunhuang manuscripts were transferred to the newly founded British Library in 1973. The Diamond Sutra has been labelled as one of the ‘Treasures of the Library’ as ‘the world’s earliest complete survival of a dated printed book’.
The 1990 exhibition The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas: Chinese Art from the Silk Route itself was to celebrate the inauguration of the newly refurbished gallery of Department of Oriental Antiquities. Objects were classified into 3 groups: 87 paintings and prints from Dunhuang, 114 textiles from Dunhuang, and 163 relics of the Silk Route. Display labels are unified with title, site of discovery, date, medium, dimensions, museum number, and reference sources. Descriptions of objects, albeit much detailed, were solely based on works by Whitfield, Stein, and Arthur while no Chinese scholars or other Stein Collection holders were involved.
British Museum publications have romanticised Stein’s expeditions: he was a determined scholar and brave explorer with the noble aim to rescue cultural materials for scholarship; to add more humanistic touch, his loyal dogs all named Dash are always mentioned, with photos
Today, none of the current holdings of Dunhuang artefacts are displayed. The permanent Chinese exhibition is still housed in the same gallery, under a new name ‘Joseph E. Hotung Gallery’ from 1992 for his generous donation. Only a few miscellaneous archaeological objects from Stein Collection are chosen and insinuated into the whole exhibition. According to the British Museum, Sir Aurel Stein was one of the international travellers along the Silk Road, who ‘excavated, recorded and published information on numerous sites and thousands of objects’ under unspecified ‘British sponsorship’. He was portrayed as a witness and student of history, while the fact and content of his acquisitions from Dunhuang are unaddressed.
The change of interpretation and display reveals the challenge to the British Museum’s ‘anonymous authority’ in the international debate over the ethics of acquisition. In 1914, the great number of Stein’s finds was boastfully celebrated; in 1990, the British Museum saw the need to maintain that they were not the only institutions holding Dunhuang artefacts. While Stein’s dealing is widely considered as dishonest and fraudulent in China, British Museum publications have romanticised Stein’s expeditions: he was a determined scholar and brave explorer with the noble aim to rescue cultural materials for scholarship; to add more humanistic touch, his loyal dogs all named Dash are always mentioned, with photos. The challenge to the Museum’s authority can also be seen through the international debate over the display of Parthenon sculptures and the Benin Bronzes, the latter of which have been comfortably exhibited as booty from a ‘punitive’ expedition.
The dynamics of display is undoubtedly political, though sometimes affected by practical concerns of space and cost. The complexity of the Dunhuang artefacts is that they were stacked for centuries in a sealed library, undisplayed, and then transferred from a dark cave in China to a dark basement in London, rarely shown. In contemporary discourse there are museum-sceptics; there are also people defending a fluid view to ‘tame the disorder of history’. Nevertheless, if important acquisitions are not displayed, how effectively can museums play their public role and realise their cultural function? This question cannot be unravelled easily, but I hope that the recent launch of the International Dunhuang Project will indeed effectively promote a joint effort on a global scale, better research on the materials from Mogao Grottoes, and bridge the gap in Dunhuang studies.
Carrier, David, Museum Skepticism: A history of the Display of Art in Public Galleries (NC: Duke University Press, 2006).
Wang, Helen and Perkins, John (eds.), Handbook to the Collections of Sir Aurel Stein in the UK (London: The British Museum, 2008).
Whitfield, Roderick, The Art of Central Asia: The Stein Collection in the British Museum (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1985).
Whitfield, Susan, Aurel Stein on the Silk Road (London: The British Museum Press, 2004).
Wingfield, Chris, ‘Placing Britain in the British Museum: Encompassing the Other’, in Simon J. Knell, et al. (eds.), National Museums: New Studies from around the World (London: Routledge, 2011).
- Stacy is doing an MA in History of Art at SOAS. Her objective is to improve the understanding and appreciation of Chinese art from home and abroad. Stacy has worked with leading art institutions such as Christie’s, Shanghai Museum, and Shanghai Gallery of Art. You can read another of her publications ‘A Symbol in Mass Production: Ruyi Images in the Inner and Outer Cities under the Qianlong Reign’ online here.