Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Published in Textile Society of America 2014 Biennial Symposium Proceedings: New Directions: Examining the Past, Creating the Future, Los Angeles, California, September 10–14, 2014,


Copyright 2014 Mariachiara Gasparini


In the summer 2012, thanks to the Department of Central Asian Art of the museum and the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) at the British Library in London, UK, the so-called Turfan textile collection--gathered during the last century Prussian Turfan Royal Expeditions in the Tarim Basin--held in the Museum of Asian Art in Berlin, Germany, was finally microscopically analyzed and digitized. Except for a couple of pieces taken into account in previous studies as examples of comparison, the collection as a whole (ca. 350 pieces) has not enjoyed particular attention from scholars in the fields of Chinese or Central Asian art and textile studies. It includes pieces dated from the seventh to the thirteenth century; the comparison with the Dunhuang textile collections and other fragments discovered in the surrounding areas has been necessary for the analysis and the dating. The digitization of the fragments and technical data will be soon published online on the IDP database and the collection itself displayed in the future Humboldt-Forum adjoining the Museum Island in Berlin. The Forum will be a museum and study complex built behind the to-be renovated facade of the former Berlin Palace, destroyed in 1950 by the authorities of the former German Democratic Republic. Probably one the most important European architectural and cultural projects, it will include the collections of the Museum of Asian Art, the Ethnological Museum, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, various departments of the Humboldt University and the Central and Regional Library of Berlin. To be opened in 2019, the Forum will bring back to light and eventually secularize a magnificent unknown textile collection to complete the permanent exhibition of the Central Asian art gallery.

In 2011, the first time I saw a few fragments of the Turfan textile collection, held in the Museum für Asiatische Kunst (Museum of Asian Art) in Berlin, I had no idea that they represented only a small part of a range of about three hundred fifty compounds that, different in style and technique and datable to between the eighth and the fourteenth centuries, comprised the collection. The fragments were gathered, together with wall paintings, architectural wooden structures, sculptures, and other tools of daily use, during the four Prussian-Turfan expeditions conducted by Albert Grünwedel (1856-1935) and Albert von Le Coq (1860-1930) at the beginning of the last century, between 1902 and 1914, in the Xinjiang Province of China. Although at first glance the collection might be classified as Chinese, it betrays a strong Sino- Iranian and Turkic matrix rooted in archaic forms and images that had circulated in China, Central Asian, and Mongolia on various media for many centuries, and were eventually recontextualized in specific areas with indigenous features.

If this fragmented treasure is ultimately to be visible to the public, it will be necessary to have it shown in a digital three-dimensional reconstruction, with related color palettes, and diagrams of the composition as a whole and of each singular pattern, in order to guide the visitor through the creation of specific graphic elements that will also be visible in the other media on display. Processes of artistic adaptation and rejection are visible on many different surfaces, from wooden beams to wall paintings and textiles. The art of weaving often renews and transforms ancient models, or uses images and religious or social symbols without necessary transfer their original meaning. For this reason, in order to avoid a static and classic way of displaying art that would already be trapped in the façade of a “glorious past,” the new Central Asian Art Gallery at the Humboldt Forum should employ modern digital tools (with related information) to display the Turfan textile collection , order to make it accessible to viewers, and to re-define what Central Asian art is, and what role it played in the transcultural and trans-media interactions between East and West.