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Special objects for special guests

The top Asian pieces from the University’s Special Collections were on display at special popup exhibitions for ICAS11 delegates on 17 and 18 July. And the University Library had mobilised plenty of staff to keep an eagle eye on any stray hands that might be tempted to touch the objects.

The doors of the Special Collection rooms opened from 17.00 to 19.00 on 17 and 18 July to delegates of ICAS11, the biggest Asia convention in the world, held in Leiden this year. The delegates were admitted in groups because numbers are limited when objects are on display. This was a special occurrence because the dozens of visitors were all experts on Asia.

Laid out on the three tables on the first day were objects from China, Japan and Korea, and on the second day objects from coutnries in South and Southeast Asia such as India, Indonesia, Myanmar and Vietnam.

Nadia Kreeft ICAS11 popup
In the background, flamboyant and stern: Nadia Kreeft.


‘It’s a well-informed audience that we are playing host to,’ says Nadia Kreeft. ‘The visitors sometimes know more about certain objects than we do. Then you get to learn more, which makes it a very special experience.’ With 2,500 delegates, ICAS11 is the biggest Asia conference in the world. Kreeft is the curator for Japan and Korea at the University Library and, as far as we know, the youngest curator the Library has ever had. Her popup day is on Wednesday 17 July, but is was also in attendance on 18 July looking flamboyant yet stern as she keeps an eagle eye on the valuable objects from South and Southeast Asia. This is their field of expertise, so the visitors are most enthusiastic, Kreeft says. To such an extent that many have asked whether they can return over the next few days to take a better look at a certain object. They can: all they need to do is put in a request and the object will be made available for a further inspection, unless it was too fragile, that is.

Marc Gilbert Pop up ICAS11
Marc Gilbert talks to visitors

East meets West

Curator Marc Gilbert helped put together the exhibition on the first day. One table is about East meets West. ‘The first Dutch-Chinese dictionary is on display; this was produced in the 19th century. It was made by two people who barely know each other’s language, which resulted in some astonishing mistakes. The woord boeck [old spelling of the Dutch boek: book], for instance, was translated as: decide for yourself,’ says Gilbert. ‘Another table, with the theme Body and Soul, contains manuscripts and objects relating to traditional medicine, anatomy and religion.’ While Gilberts speaks, he is accosted by someone who wants to return during his stay in Leiden. They quickly make an appointment.

Catherine Raymond ICAS11 popup
Catherine Raymond, a French art historian who now works in the US.

Images and motifs

Catherine Raymond, an art historian from France, is now Director of the Center for Burma Studies at Northern Illinois University in the United States. She is particularly interested in images, motifs and iconography. Various images and motifs can be found on different materials at different times and in different parts of Asia. How did they spread? ‘I’m really surprised’, she calls on her way out. What has surprised her will remain a mystery. 

Manuscripts from Nepal, the Himalayas and Tibet

Mukta Singh Tamang comes from Nepal and teaches at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu. ‘I study manuscripts from Nepal, the Himalayas and Tibet, but the entire Asian culture fascinates me.’ This anthropologist is impressed by what he sees in Leiden, ‘Stunning!’

Minh Tien Nguyen ICAS11 popup
Minh Tien Nguyen, literature student from Vietnam.

Local literature

Minh Tien Nguyen is a literature student from Vietnam. ‘I specialise in local Vietnamese literature,’ he says. He is particularly interested in the manuscripts that are on display, and studies them through a magnifying glass. He too is impressed by what he sees, ‘The manuscripts, the drawings… Beautiful!’

Twenty-one copper plates

The most remarkable object on show is a large charter (see photo below). This is a declaration or grant defining a number of principles or agreements on a certain topic. The charter on display dates from 11th-century South India and consists of a bronze ring that holds together 21 copper plates. The ring is closed with the seal of Hindu King Rājendra Chola I (1012-1042). The entire object weights 30 kg.

charter from South India
The 30-kg charter from South India.


Sanskrit and Timil texts have been etched on the copper plates at the request of the king. These relate how his father donated the revenue of a whole village to a Buddhist pagaoda built by a Malay Buddhist King, which is a sign of tolerance. It was customary to bury charters to ensure that nothing would happen to them, and to copy the agreements to another material to ensure that the text remained accessible. The charter received plenty of attention on 18 July.

Charter from South India
The seal closing the ring

The objects from the University Library have been classified and photographed or digitised, and can to be found together with a description in the University’s Special Collections.

Text: Corine Hendriks
Photos: Guus Janssen

ICAS pop up
And it all ended with a drink of course
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