Decolonising Collections: Investigating Knowledge Formation Networks in Colonial India

Gold coin of the Mugal ruler Jahangir (r. 1605– 27), zodiac coin bearing the figure of the Sagittarius on the obverse and an inscription on the reverse, minted in Lahore. Acquisition date 1937. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Shreya Gupta
University of Exeter

Objects hold a special place in the way we look at the past. Objects travel across borders and have lives. Their meanings and values change across time, and decoding these meanings can help us understand our history better. Museums are repositories of relics from the past. They are one of the mediums through which we form tangible links with our history. But objects in museums did not make it there by themselves.

Many of the South Asian objects in UK museums arrived here during the colonial era. Systematic projects of collecting were organised to serve the goals of museums. British imperial officers organised surveys of India’s landscape, monuments, and antiquities and with the collected artefacts, intended to write a history of and for India. While the life trajectories of these colonial officers are well documented, the role of their Indian collaborators and helpers is often omitted. This has to do with both the tendency to look at British officers as heroic figures who helped uncover India’s “hidden” past and the distorted nature of the archive, which itself tends to obscure the role of indigenous players.

We therefore need to rethink the way we look at museums and understand the urgency of decolonising them. As the movement for decolonising museums gains ground, their responsibility in telling inclusive and fuller stories has become clear. As part of this endeavor, museums are undertaking deeper provenance research. They are researching the histories of the objects that they hold, exploring the exact contours of how the collecting process worked on the ground and who were the actors and institutions involved in it. The findings from this research can then help us better make sense of the contested colonial contexts in which objects were acquired by museums during the height of colonialism.

In the South Asian context, the attempt at writing Indian history was undertaken by the British officers stationed in India. Colin Mackenzie, James Fergusson, and Alexander Cunningham were some of the early figures involved in the Indian archaeological field.

Often missing from this list of names were the Indian interpreters and translators who also assisted the British officers in their surveying projects. Locals provided information and functioned as mediators and helped the surveyors in navigating the complexity of local knowledge. With time, their role grew, and indigenous scholars began playing an active role in writing about India’s past. And yet, historians have only just begun decolonizing these histories.

In the case of Mackenzie’s survey of Mysore, for example, the project of writing history was not done without the help of Indians themselves, as has been shown by Bernard Cohn, Nicholas Dirks and Phillip B Wagoner.

Tapati Guha Thakurta has written on Raja Rajendralal Mitra (1822–91), one of the first Indians to work in the Archaeological Survey of India (established in 1861 by Alexander Cunningham for conducting archaeological excavations in India) and Rakhaldas Banerjee (1885–1930), a Bengali archaeological scholar. Yet, as she shows, the scholarly space they occupied was not easy to navigate. Fergusson dismissed Rajendralal Mitra’s arguments about India’s architectural history simply on account of his being a “native” scholar. For Fergusson, any knowledge based on “native” methods could never match up to European knowledge as it was not considered “scientific”. And this was not an isolated incident, colonised voices have often been written over even when they were inscribed deeply in the archives of colonial knowledge.

In the case of South Asia, Bernard Cohn has argued that the establishment of British hegemony in India was also a conquest of knowledge. Thus, the networks involved in this knowledge production process deserve close scrutiny. I hope that my findings can help us know more about the Indians involved in producing the knowledge about India’s past.

Decolonisation is not a one-size-fits-all trick. It can mean different things to different institutions — ranging from the restitution of museum objects to community engagement.

In the UK, the decolonisation endeavor has been interpreted in myriad ways. The project, The East India Company at Home, examined British country houses and their links to the Company’s colonial exploits. The British Museum recently reorganised its South Asia gallery to highlight collecting histories of objects and emphasize South Asian voices.

But the decolonisation process is not without its difficulties. The Birmingham Museum organised an exhibition, “The Past is Now”, with the help of activists as co-curators which looked at Birmingham’s links with the Empire. However, during the curatorial process, there were conflicts between the museum members and the co-curators about what this entailed on the ground. It did, however, push the Birmingham Museum to engage in an exercise of self-reflection.

Similarly, in South Asia, decolonisation has been employed for some problematic agendas. As Kavita Singh and Saloni Mathur point out, the museum model has taken on a new avatar in the subcontinent where it is being used to further religious revivalism.

These examples remind us of the difficulties of the decolonising project. Many have spoken of decolonisation as a process instead of a goal, and I could not agree more. An institution must decide which interpretations work best for it, depending on its needs and its context. Therefore, we need to think of decolonisation as a path that entails reflection, critique, and not least of all change.

I shall embark on this exciting project of ‘Decolonising Collections’ with this approach in mind.

I will endeavor to recover the voices of the colonised through this project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Collaborative Doctoral Partnership. Under this collaborative project between the University of Exeter and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, supervised by Professor Nandini Chatterjee, Professor Nicola Thomas and Dr Shailendra Bhandare, I will look at the role of indigenous networks in assembling the South Asian coin collections held in UK museums, including the Ashmolean Museum, the British Museum in London, and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

Little is known about the Indian scholars who helped four British male coin collectors – Jose Gerson da Cunha, H. Nelson Wright, Alfred Master and R. B. Whitehead – in assembling these collections. I seek to uncover how Indian scholars were involved in collecting, investigating, and studying coins, and what their relationship was with the British collectors.

I hope that this project helps uncover the role of the indigenous scholars involved in collecting coins, and that it serves as a useful reminder about the power of material culture in shaping and making sense of our past.