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.

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