• East Java, 2016 / Photo: Mya Chau

  • East Java, 2016 / Photo: Mya Chau

  • East Java, 2016 / Photo: Mya Chau

  • Singapore, 2018 / Photo: Mya Chau

  • Vietnam, 2019 / Photo: Mya Chau

Navigating Southeast Asian art history at the sites of origin

Navigating Southeast Asian art history at the sites of origin

Mya Chau (UCLA Ph.D., 2020) details her engagement with historians, curators, and community members at important sites of Southeast Asian art history through the SOAS Southeast Asian Art Academic Programs.

By Mya Chau (UCLA Ph.D., 2020)

During the summers of 2016–2019, I was invited to participate in the SOAS Southeast Asian Art History programs held in East Java, Central Java, Singapore and Vietnam. In collaboration with SOAS, local universities and museums, each program welcomed 20 Southeast Asian and overseas M.A. and Ph.D. students along with a dozen international scholars in art history, conservation, epigraphy and other related fields of study. Participants convened for 7 to 10 days with a schedule of all day sessions that incorporated scholarly lectures, student presentations, group discussions, museum visits and field trips to temples and archaeological sites.

East Java, Indonesia, 2016

The inaugural program in summer 2016 was held at the Integrated Outdoor Campus (IOC) at the University of Surabaya located on the foot of Mt. Penanggungan in Trawas, East Java, Indonesia. Coordinated by Dr. Andrea Acri, Dr. Helene Njoto, and Dr. Peter Sharrock, in collaboration with Nalanda Sriwijaya at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, SOAS and University of Surabaya, the program explored pre-modern Javanese art history, particularly in East Java (ca. 8th -17th century). 

Ninety-minute lectures from international experts offered knowledge about Javanese inscriptions, esoteric Buddhist cults, to the Islamic period in Java (ca. 14th-16th century). Scholars from various disciplines shared expertise in research methods, iconography and textual analysis. We conducted drawing sessions that integrated thorough observations of Javanese artifacts. The highlights involved a one day hike of Mt. Penanggungan and three day visits to temples, museums and sites of Kediri, Singhasari, Trowulan, Blitar, Panataran and other temples across East Java. Mt. Penanggungan represents an important archaeological site with sacred Buddhist and Hindu monuments and sanctuaries on the mountain terrain, an area less researched in scholarship.

Central Java, Indonesia, 2017

The summer 2017 program in Yogyakarta, Central Java was organized by Dr. Andrea Acri, Fajri Adieyatna, Dr. Mimi Savitri and Dr. Peter Sharrock in collaboration with SOAS and Universitas Gadjah Mada. The program focused on central Javanese Hindu and Buddhist art history from the early 8th to late 9th century, at the height of Javanese civilization. 

Activities included scholar lectures, student presentations and workshops on topics such as Prajñāpāramitā, Pāśupata monks and stupa-mandala. Visits to the Dieng Plateau, Borobudur, Loro Jonggrang, the Buddhist Candi Sewu, Ratu Boko and the Kailasa Museum allowed the opportunity to apply knowledge learned in the classroom to physical sites. Understanding Java in relation to the history of Sri Lanka, China, northern Vietnam, and Champa was an important part of our discussions. The turn of the millennium reflected dynamic exchanges among cultures in the international political sphere during the 9th-10th centuries.

Singapore, 2018

The summer 2018 program in Singapore explored ancient to premodern Hindu and Buddhist art collections. The organizers, Dr. Emma Natalya Stein and Dr. Peter Sharrock collaborated with SOAS, the Shaw Foundation Alumni House (NUS), the Freer Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institute and the Asian Civilization Museum (ACM). Sessions covered topics on ancient Southeast Asian collections, archives, and ethics in collecting and curating. 

Participants examined current issues in Southeast Asian museology, conservation, heritage protection and preservation. Afterwards, we toured the Asian Civilization Museum, the Heritage Conservation Center and the Indian Heritage Center with an excursion to ACM special exhibition on Angkor. Then we attended a lecture about the centenary catalogue, Vibrancy in Stone: Masterpieces of the Đà Nng Museum of Cham Sculpture (2018). The program created a forum to discuss the challenges of museum work for South and Southeast Asian art, but more importantly how to collectively improve accessibility to archives. The issues of museum politics, object display and limited resources suggest the significance of continuing partnerships between museum professionals and local universities. Publications of new catalogues with color photographs and international exhibitions will enhance the study of Southeast Asian culture.

Vietnam, 2019

The summer 2019 program in Ho Chi Minh City was organized by Dr. Emma Natayla Stein and Dr. Peter Sharrock in collaboration with the Museum of Vietnamese History (HCMC), SOAS and the Freer Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institute, highlighting the understudied cultures of the Mekong Delta and masterpieces from the HCMC Museum of Vietnamese History. 

The workshop focused on the prehistory of Vietnam, Champa and Mekong Delta, their collections and displays. Field trips were arranged to visit the Long An Museum and the An Giang Museum. On the second day, the cohort toured the archaeological site, Óc Eo in Thoi Sôn District in An Giang province. Additional research is needed to document why the site was a major port for commercial and economic trade. 

Impact on South and Southeast Asian Art

The SOAS summer programs were a truly remarkable experience. I interacted closely with teaching experts, graduate students and organizers who had strong visions for cultivating the study of Southeast Asian art history. I was granted a rare opportunity to learn in the classroom combined with viewing artifacts and exploring archaeological sites, a teaching method practiced during all four programs. The field trips in Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam as well as the knowledge taught by historians, epigraphers and curators provided a greater understanding of museology and heritage preservation. 

The programs have inspired a critical approach to teaching Southeast Asian art, emphasizing object-based learning and student engagement. At the end of each workshop, additional resources were offered including books, handouts, participant contacts and presentation materials to encourage further reflections. Participants of the first two programs were invited to contribute a chapter for publication in a volume series, The Creative South: The Great Religious Art Innovations of Medieval Maritime Asia, forthcoming from ISEAS Press in 2021. During these summers, I was fortunate to be a part of an international community that strengthens intellectual exchange of ideas and expertise in South and Southeast Asian art. Future programs will not only expand the field with innovative approaches to research, but also produce new publications and underexplored lines of inquiry.