Interdisciplinary team secures grant to explore kingdoms of Asia

Scholars from the British Museum, British Library and SOASL, University of London secure unprecedented €7 million grant from the European Research Council. The Synergy Grant will explore interactions between China, India, Afghanistan, Thailand and Indonesia. The first grant to be awarded to a museum in the history of the European Research Council.

The British Museum has today announced that, as part of an interdisciplinary team, it has secured a €7 million European Research Council (ERC) grant to explore the ancient interactions between South Asia, Central, South and Southeast Asia. The grant is the largest single sum awarded to support research at the British Museum, and is one of the largest awards for any Arts and Humanities Research projects across Europe. The project will be led by Dr Michael Willis (British Museum), Dr Sam van Schaik (British Library) and Dr Nathan W. Hill from the SOAS, University of London. The project entitled Beyond Boundaries: Religion, Region, Language and the State focuses on the literary, economic and religious developments in this region of the fourth and fifth centuries CE, a crucial period of cultural formation and international exchange. The team brings together a unique range of expertise in linguistics, history, religious studies, geography, archaeology and art history. It aims to create a new global vision for the history of Asia.

Beyond Boundaries was one of 13 selected (from over 250 original applications) to receive a share of the €150 million ERC Synergy Grants, it is the only humanities project to receive funds from the ERC this funding round and the only grant to a UK team. The five-year project will examine the cultural constitution and configuration of the centres of political power, map how Sanskrit, Prakrit and Pali – the languages of political and religious discourse – came to be used across Asia, and analyse how temples, monastic organisations and landed estates emerged as autonomous socio-economic institutions with stable endowments. The project will work across modern intellectual, geographical and political boundaries for the first time, recovering the diverse cultures, complex polities and varied religious networks of the fourth and fifth centuries. The output of the project will include academic publications and an online resources.

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, commented: “I am delighted to see the British Museum’s pre-eminence in research acknowledged in this way. Dr Michael Willis has forged an invaluable partnership with our colleagues at the British Library and the SOAS. The research opens new possibilities for understanding Asia and will enable us to revise current thinking about our collection."

Dr Michael Willis said: “This is a very special grant and it provides exceptional opportunities. South Asia, Central Asia and Southeast Asia have long remained a specialist subjects, little-mentioned outside area studies. Our aim is to create a new global vision for Asian history by generating new evidence based on links across disciplines, regions and countries. The British Museum will play a central role in the project, providing an international hub for colleagues from Europe and Asia.”

ERC President Helga Nowotny said: "The eagerly awaited outcome of the second ERC Synergy Grant has yielded some truly exciting science among the 13 projects selected. Applicants have understood well that 'Synergy' entails the unique combination of individual skills and knowledge, often crossing disciplinary boundaries in exceptionally innovative ways. The results prove that the strength of the Synergy Grant lies in enabling up to four top scientists to jointly tackle a challenging problem where none of them could succeed alone. The Scientific Council will soon carefully assess its experience with this innovative pilot scheme.”

Notes to Editors:

The projects selected by ERC are at the crossroads of many disciplines and bring together two to four outstanding researchers, which includes supporting 45 scientists based in 11 countries through these prestigious grants.

In 2012/13 the BM attracted nearly £3.5million in external funding from UK and international research bodies, often as part of collaborative studies with outside institutions.

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