The Wandering Collection: The India Museum and Dialogues on Empire Public Deposited

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  • February 26, 2019
  • Leonard, Kayla
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of History
  • Prince Albert’s positive response to the Great Exhibition of 1851 spawned several new museums in the South Kensington area, including the India Office’s India Museum. Scholars for the past century and a half have extensively studied all of these museums. Many of the museums that opened in the wake of this event were museums that revolved around the concept of education as discussed in Bruce Robertson’s 2004 article “The South Kensington Museum in Context: An Alternative History.” Robertson’s article is one of many that focuses on the creation of a museum and the roles that the director and staff played in that creation. Like many other historians, Robertson looks at a museum, in this case the South Kensington Museum, without looking at the wider context in which it was founded. Many of these histories do not include empire as a factor in the creation and day-to-day operations of these institutions. Those scholarly explorations which do involve empire such as the Smithsonian’s Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display tend to focus more on post-colonial representations of other cultures, such as the 1986 exhibition of Indian Art at the Grand Palais in Paris. In contrast, this paper examines the cultural dialogues regarding empire that took place between the educated British public and the Government through the collections of the India Museum. By tracing the collections of the India Museum between 1869 and 1883, it is evident that the British Government and the British people used cultural centers such as the former India Museum as a structure through which the perception of empire could be discussed, changed, and molded to fit changing conceptions of British national identity. In many ways, during this period British perception of empire changed from one sustained by trade to one sustained by culture. By utilizing the internal documents found in museum archives in London, this thesis is able the follow the internal, bureaucratic debates that occurred within this museum and how those debates correlated with larger events. This paper is divided into three chapters. The first chapter examines the trade background and focus of the India Museum as it came under the purview of the India Office, as well as how some in the British public received that background and focus. The second chapter explores how changes were made to the India Museum during the mid-1870s in response to public criticisms, including a move from the India Office building to a new home in South Kensington. The final chapter traces the India Museum’s collections through their dispersal to the South Kensington Museum and the ways in which that dispersal reflected shifting perceptions of empire from a solely financial institution to one with a variety of functions.
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  • Funding: Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, Hogan Fellowship
  • Pennybacker, Susan
  • Bachelor of Arts
Honors level
  • Honors
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • 56

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