Prof. Susan Whitfield guest blog – Nara to Norwich: Expanding our Silk Road Horizons

Nara to Norwich is a multi-year international research and exhibition project that aims to explore the Silk Roads beyond their current emphases on the Chinese and post-Roman worlds. Focussing primarily on the interactions between early Buddhism in east Asia and early Christianity around the North Sea, the project explores the material culture, landscapes, and literature to weave a narrative concerning the transformation of religions as they journeyed eastwards to Nara in Japan and westwards to Norwich in Britain. With a team of scholars from Britain, Scandinavia, Japan, Korea and beyond, the project is focussed on collaborations and conversations, intended to suggest to all of us links and inspiration beyond our own fields and provide new and interdisciplinary approaches to our topics.—the project website and online exhibition


The theme of the project emerged several years ago when Professor Simon Kaner got in touch with me and other historians and archaeologists in Britain to discuss the idea of an exhibition project on Japan and the Silk Roads. Simon is Director of the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Culture at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and a specialist on early Japan. We conceived the idea of an exhibition based on the new religions of Buddhism and Christianity reaching the edges of Eurasia through the Silk Roads as a way of making the Silk Roads relevant and more accessible to audiences in Norwich and beyond. A large exhibition was planned for the Sainsbury Centre for 2020. However, the onset and effects of COVID repeatedly pushed back our schedule and, during this enforced delay, our discussions and ideas had moved on. We had been on several research and field trips and held workshops with colleagues which had inspired us all and shown us the value of expanding our disciplinary and geographical horizons. We therefore shelved the idea of a major exhibition which would have required all our time, significant fundraising, and inevitable compromises to our wish list of exhibits. We decided instead to put the exhibition online, to continue our programme of focussed meetings, and to hold small exhibits with partners over the coming years.


Some of the online exhibits from the four regions.


The website with the initial group of exhibits went live in 2022 (click here) and more exhibits—and stories to link them—will appear over the coming year. We recently held a workshop with colleagues in Istanbul (see my blog post here) in order to expand the debate to Islam on the Silk Roads. This was made possible with the continuing support of the Toshiba Foundation.


In October 2023, SISJAC will be hosting the 7th Meeting of the International Association for the Study of Silk Road Textiles, working in partnership with the Silk Road Museum in Hangzhou and several other institutions and individuals. In 2024 we plan exhibits in Norwich and a focus on pilgrimage—centred on Walsingham in Norfolk, but looking more broadly at pilgrimage across time, place, and religions. We are exploring holding small exhibitions in Sweden, Japan, and Korea over 2024–5 and continuing our programme of workshops with colleagues worldwide. Several publications are also planned.


–Susan Whitfield is a RAS Council Member and Professor of Silk Road Studies at the University of East Anglia.