top of page

As one of the most famous museums in the world, the Metropolitan Museum of Art needs no introduction. With its extensive collection, the museum, located adjacent to Central Park, takes days to peruse. The South Asian art collection is split in two main galleries: most pieces rest in the Asian section but there are also Mughal works in the Islamic galleries.

The gallery space starts off with an infographic displaying a map and a brief history of the South Asian subcontinent. The works follow a chronological order but are also grouped together based on subject matter. The beige colored walls provide a backdrop for the beautiful sculptures exhibited. The labels for these objects include a simple provenance as well as a descriptive formal analysis. The details of each object can also be found on their website where they might include more text as well. A similar aesthetic is kept in all the rooms with the exception of the last one, which has pitch black walls. This interior design choice serves to highlight the most exquisite piece in the collection: the Shiva Natarja statue. It is flanked by other highlights including Standing Parvati, although, when I visited, this piece had been temporarily removed for conservation purposes. A staircase leads to the upper section which features mini exhibits of Ganesha: Lord of New Beginnings and Arts of Tibet and Nepal. The staircase itself is also a viewing object as it features the ceiling of a Mandapa. The color and texture of the staircase and room matches this ceiling to create a more immersive experience for the visitor, transporting them to a real life Jain Meeting Hall.

The Islamic gallery hosts different Mughal artwork including their collection of Mughal miniature paintings which are changed seasonally. This separation between Mughal artwork from “Indian Art” is a trend amongst many museums and reveals the complicated history of the region. The first Mughal rulers descended from Muslim Turks, but they employed many Indian artists and have created many of the most recognizable South Asian artworks. Modern-day India also has a complicated relationship with the Mughals as they reflect the art and style of a minority religion, Islam, which has become heavily oppressed by right-wing government resurgence. The push to erase the Mughal, and by extension Muslim, history of India by its own government has reflected on its representation in the global sphere as well.

The Met Museum’s impressive collection with its iconic pieces makes it a mandatory visit for anyone interested in South Asian art. They provide a wealth of information to educate their audience through the labels but also through their website, and take care to not generalize or stereotype the artwork. They have also put in a great deal of effort to break away from the “white cube” aesthetic that has been the standard in museums and galleries for centuries. However, academics, like Parul Dave Mukherji in her work Whither Art History in a Globalizing World, have criticized how this shift can be problematic as a more ethnographic focus for the museum fails to escape the framework of Europe as the epicenter of “high art” while other traditions are redacted to “cultural” .This is an even greater challenge in South Asian art as many pieces have a religious role in addition to their artistic integrity. The pieces in question would have been originally kept in temples, serving religious roles, but are now kept in an art museum that has created a pseudo temple space inside of it. For some visitors, the blurred lines between the sacred object and art to view can create a very jarring or even alienating effect. Are these objects meant to be prayed to? Especially if the physical architecture of religious buildings has also been recreated? What is the difference between experiencing art while visiting a real temple compared to visiting a recreation of a temple in a museum? This is also worsened by the unclear acquisition of many of these pieces. There has been a long and troubling history of art being stolen, inadequately paid for, or misappropriated from South Asia by the West, and the Met, too, has faced such criticisms in the past. By not clearly stating the provenance of pieces on display, these questions still linger.

A visit to the South Asian galleries in the Met can provide a wonderful afternoon but raises many questions about the way we see art and the role of a museum. The Met’s vast collection appeals to all types of people, and includes enough information to educate even the most unfamiliar. However at times the cultural objects displayed feel a bit exoticized and become a spectacle, furthered by the lack of diverse curatorial staff. As a large, influential cultural institution, the Met is slow to change but also the most impactful when completed, making its journey important to the South Asian community in New York City.


Insiya Motiwala studies Art History and Interactive Media at New York University. Her academic research focuses on property and labor in art, including collectivist craft based artwork, and museum administration. Her first hand experience of the textile industry during her childhood in Karachi, Pakistan has created a long standing interest in fiber arts as well.

Insiya studies art history and specializes in museum administration and art as property. This is reflected in her reviews as she highlights questions of management including the goal of a museum as well the role of the audience. Her work covers art spaces in NYC consisting of the many popular museums as well as smaller galleries. As a Pakistani immigrant, Insiya’s personal experience of South Asian art is through decorative folk art, textiles and other mediums that are not traditionally considered “high art.” She visited and reviewed a total of five institutions throughout the summer; Aicon Gallery, Rubin Museum, Met Museum, Asia Society Museum and Brooklyn Museum.

bottom of page