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Object in Focus: Arrow Vase

Edward Weech, Librarian at the Royal Asiatic Society tells us about the long running relationship between them and the Horniman. Recently they received the arrow vase as part of the Object in Focus loans programme.

The Royal Asiatic Society was founded in 1823 and exists to promote scholarly research and public interest in the histories and cultures of Asia. Over the years, it built up a collection of books, manuscripts, art works, photographs, and archives, mainly donated by its members, documenting a diverse array of Asian cultures and traditions. The Society’s collections testify to the many ways in which British people have engaged with and been inspired by Asian cultures over the last two hundred years. Our collections are available for anyone to use, and this year we launched a Digital Library, featuring some of our most important collections, which can be viewed online.  

  • Snakes and ladders, A design for the game of Snakes and Ladders, by Trivenkatacharya (ca. 1810). RAS 051.001
    A design for the game of Snakes and Ladders, by Trivenkatacharya (ca. 1810). RAS 051.001

The Society has had a number of homes around London during its lifetime, but these days its permanent home is in Euston, North London, a short walk away from the British Library. In its early years, the Society amassed a collection of museum objects, which it retained until 1869. These included coins, weapons, clothing, stuffed birds and animals, insects, and minerals and plants. The Society even had a mummy, which was eventually given to King’s College Museum. After that, and despite resolving not to accept any more “curiosities”, the Society continued to acquire obscure objects, including a human hand, three elephant’s tails, a piece of beef preserved in vegetable tar, and an enormous hairball.[1]

  • Mummy , The Egyptian mummy formerly belonging to the RAS, which was given to Kings College, London. RAS 032.002
    The Egyptian mummy formerly belonging to the RAS, which was given to Kings College, London. RAS 032.002

An article about the Society’s “Museum” was published in The Penny Magazine (21 August 1841). The article describes the museum collections, displayed across four or five rooms. The passage and hallway were full of stone inscriptions and “Oriental idol-figures”, with the staircase lined with all manner of weapons – spears, lances, bows, arrows, axes, rifles, pistols, and so on. The treasures displayed in the Society’s meeting room included precious manuscripts, as well as artworks, models of tools and machinery used in India,  bookcases, a celestial globe, and a “double sea-cocoa-nut”. By the standards of a modern museum, it would certainly seem like a confusing mixture.  

Indeed, the Society faced a problem familiar to curators everywhere: they didn’t have enough space to store their objects properly, let alone display them. The Society already had a history of lending to other institutions – some objects loaned to an exhibition at the Crystal Palace were destroyed in a fire in 1866 (more were lost in a fire at the India Museum in 1885). When the Society moved premises in 1869, most of its objects were transferred to the India Office, later going to the India Museum, South Kensington, and eventually to the Victoria and Albert Museum. In 1924, the V&A offered to purchase the jade cup of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, on loan from the Society, for £100, with the condition that other items on loan there were donated. However, the V&A didn’t want the Society’s entire museum collection, and unwanted objects were sold to other museums or auctioned off.

Some of these items were purchased in 1925 by the Horniman Museum and Gardens, including a Chinese manuscript which Dr Fiona Kerlogue, Former Deputy Keeper of Anthropology, contacted us about a few years ago, in the hope of learning more about its history. While we weren’t able to provide much new information, the renewed contact helped to inspire further collaborations between our two institutions.

The highlight of this has been two loans as part of the Arts Council England programme, Object in Focus. The first was the loan of a statue of the Daoist deity Zhenwu in late 2016, followed by the current loan of a Ming Dynasty Arrow Vase. This would have been used in the ancient Chinese game of touhu, in which the aim was for players to throw arrows into a wine vessel. Perhaps originating as a drinking game, it dates back at least to the Warring States period (5th-3rd century BC), when it was described in the Li Ji (Book of Rites). Its popularity endured for the next 2000 years, with a particular vogue in the early part of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).

  • Arrow vase, General view of arrow vase , Horniman Museum and Gardens
    General view of arrow vase , Horniman Museum and Gardens

According to the Li Ji, the Arrow Vase would be filled with small beans, to help stop the wooden arrows from bouncing out. Mats were placed to indicate where the players should throw from, two and a half arrows’ length away from the vase. Players took it in turns to throw a set of arrows, and an elaborate system of counters was used to keep track of how many throws each player had made, and how many were successful. There were several rounds. At the end the “superintendent of archery” would tally up who was the winner. The contest was accompanied by a group of musicians playing a tune called “The Fox’s Head” on stringed instruments.

  • Arrow vase print, Arrow vase print from interpretation panel
    Arrow vase print from interpretation panel

By the 12th century the game had spread to Korea, where it is still played today, though with a rather less elaborate vase.

Although the Royal Asiatic Society has a long history of lending its treasures to other organisations, it very rarely borrows things to exhibit, and so the support of the Horniman has provided a very exciting opportunity to do something different. The Object in Focus programme also means rarely-seen objects are exposed to a new audience.

While the Horniman is much larger than the Royal Asiatic Society, there are parallels between our two institutions. We both have extensive collections about Asian history and cultures; both our histories testify to the ways British people have sought to learn about the wider world; and both of us, in our own ways, are slightly “quirky” places. The RAS is thrilled to be able to work with the Horniman to bring material culture to the attention of our audiences. Personally, having grown up in south-east London and having visited the Horniman many times as a child, it’s also a real pleasure to re-connect with a place that helped inspire my own interest in natural history and the rich variety of human culture. (Like many children, my favourite objects were two of the Horniman’s most famous: the museum’s walrus and its totem pole).

  • walrus, General view of walrus , Horniman Museum and Gardens
    General view of walrus , Horniman Museum and Gardens

The Arrow Vase is on display in the Society’s Reading Room until 2 April 2019, and it can be viewed during our Library opening hours (Tuesday and Friday 10am-5pm, and Thursday 2pm-5pm). It may also be viewed outside our opening hours, by appointment.

We were very grateful to Dr Rose Kerr (former Keeper of the East Asian Department at the Victoria and Albert Museum) for giving us a wonderful lecture about the history of the Arrow Vase game, which took place in the Society’s Lecture Theatre on Tuesday 18 September. The Society has an active lecture programme which may be of interest to those of you who attend the Horniman’s events; full details are available on our website.



[1] C.F. Beckingham, “A history of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1823-1973”, The Royal Asiatic Society, its history and treasures (Leiden: Brill, 1979), 45.