Curator's Choice: The new Voices of Asia gallery at Leeds City Museum

| 18 April 2014

Curator's Choice: Antonia Lovelace on the new Voices of Asia gallery at Leeds City Museum

A photo of a yellow Asian sculpture of a figure made out of yellow, black and red
This mask shows Sita, the heroine of the sacred Hindu epic, the Ramayana. The demon Ravanna steals her away from her husband, Rama, and takes her to the island of Lanka. Rama comes to her rescue with the help of the monkey king, Hanuman© Courtesy Leeds Museums and Galleries
“It’s really busy at the moment here in Leeds as we make the final preparations for the new gallery.

When we first opened the museum to the public, in 2008, the World View gallery focused on Africa, with the title Out of Africa showcasing our amazing African sculptures, masks, textiles and musical instruments.

Now we are changing to Voices of Asia, which will be as much about Asia in Leeds as about Asia itself.

A photo of a small puppet sculpture of an Asian lion figure with orange fur and a yellow face
A tiger puppet made for Chinese New Year celebrations. People born in Tiger years are meant to be strong leaders, daring fighters, a little unpredictable and in a hurry. This puppet is made in a similar way to a New Year dance costume, with a large head of papier mâché and a hinged jaw, glass eyes and ears with bells inside© Courtesy Leeds Museums and Galleries
There are over 6,000 Asian items in the Leeds collections, which is the result of Leeds people travelling and working in Asia from the late 18th century onwards, as well as a more general appreciation of Asian art that led collectors to buy Asian art here in the UK.

It’s been hard to choose from such a broad range, but some items are obvious star pieces, such as our earliest stone sculpture, a Gandhara Buddha from 3rd century AD, or the gilded chest from Myanmar, which is late 19th century.

We also want to signpost our most generous benefactors - for example, the Frank Savery bequest gave Leeds its biggest Chinese ceramics collections.

Savery had a career in the Foreign Service, and spent much of his working life in the British Embassy in Prague, coming back to work in London during World War II.

Most of his 300-plus Chinese ceramics were purchased in London, and he made the bequest to Temple Newsam because they had let him show some of his pieces there a while before his death in 1966.

In Voices of Asia, Chinese ceramics will be just one of several types of luxury goods profiled in the Trade and War section, together with jade, tea, and ivory.

One Savery piece, a Song dynasty tea bowl, will be on show, partly as a pointer to the other displays in the Collector’s Gallery and to the China Pantry at one of our other museums, Lotherton Hall.

A photo of a large ornate yellow casket with a black lid and red mahogany rim
A gold and red lacquered wooden chest, used for storing precious holy books or manuscripts. The designs include dancing humanfigures and lion dogs. Made in Myanmar, Burma (1860-1885)© Courtesy Leeds Museums and Galleries
Over the past two years we have built up an Advisory Network of Leeds Asian communities and University contacts to help with choosing the topics and planning the programme for the new gallery.

We have added to our contemporary collections and aim to include some significant loans over the planned five-year life of the gallery.

We have also been working with a film company, Digifish, to make four films for the gallery: Hinduism in Leeds, Gods’ Dancing - symbolic gestures in Indian classical dance - Learn Dhol drumming so you can dance Bhangra, and Gold.

All the films have been made with key local expert co-operation and input. In the first year our Faith in Focus section will be on Hinduism, in 2015 Islam, in 2016 Sikhism and in 2017, Buddhism.

Now Leeds' Asian culture is highly visible in the city, in terms of restaurants and food choices, fashion and jewellery shops, world faiths and their religious buildings, and public performances of music, dance, and theatre.

We need to look both outside and inside the museum building to make an exciting and relevant display.”

  • Voices of Asia is open now.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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