The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms

Major exhibition at the V&A
March to July 1999


Harnessing the energy and activity surrounding the 300th anniversary celebrations of the formation of the Khalsa (Sikh brotherhood), the V&A worked with the Sikh community in marketing the exhibition across the country, in planning a range of exhibition related events and in ensuring that all visitors had a positive experience.

The first outreach initiative took place in August 1998 at Thetford, Norfolk. The occasion was the unveiling of the bronze equestrian statue of Maharaja Dalip Singh commissioned by the Maharaja Duleep Singh Centenary Trust. At this event V&A staff mounted a portable display of some of the highlights of the exhibition, distributed publicity in both Panjabi and English and recruited volunteers for further outreach.

This initiative was followed up in December 1998 when forty people from the Sikh community, representing Birmingham, Coventry, Essex, Kent, all London boroughs, Middlesex, Nottingham, Slough, Warwick, Watford and the West Midlands, attended an information session. Volunteers from this group, along with V&A staff, disseminated information on the exhibition at other community events right up to and during the exhibition period.

The exhibition was also marketed through an effective poster campaign, particularly targetting areas where there is a substantial Sikh community and a mailing list to Sikh gurdwaras (temples) and organisations across the country.

The education programme was developed for a broad range of audiences - families, individuals, community groups, teachers and higher education groups. Highlights included bhangra (folk dance); Kirtan (Sikh festival songs); gatka (martial art); stories from the Sikh world in English and Panjabi; demonstrations of phulkari (embroidery), miniature painting and damascening (application of gold and silver wire to steel plate), turban tying and handling artefacts. There were also workshops in jewellery making, tabla, phulkari embroidery and calligraphy targeted at the South Asian community, and a major two-day conference involving international speakers.

The advice from the Sikh community on the content of the programme and appropriate artists, speakers and teachers proved invaluable. The exhibition events leaflet gave information about this extensive programme in both Panjabi and English. The panels to the various sections of the exhibition were also translated into Panjabi and distributed in booklet form.

Volunteers from the Sikh community managed a Sikh help desk every weekend throughout the exhibition. They assisted individuals and groups from the Sikh community introducing them to the Nehru Gallery of Indian Art as well as to the temporary exhibition, and also helped members of the general public who often enquired about various aspects of Sikh culture.

Over 118,000 people visited the exhibition over a twelve-week period. Visitor surveys indicated that over 60% were from the Sikh community. Of these over 70% were first time visitors to the V&A and over 40% were first time visitors to any museum or gallery. Many people came in coaches organised by gurdwaras or local organisations, particularly from West London, the Midlands and the North West.


Outreach at Thetford, August 1998
Outreach at Thetford, August 1998
Roop Singh, story teller performing at the V&A, June 1999
 Bhangra (folk dance) performed at the V&A, June 1999
Bhangra (folk dance) on the steps to the V&A, June 1999
Gatka (martial art), performed at the V&A, June 1999
Sikh visitors to the V&A, June 1999


The exhibition was generally very well received. The feedback was invaluable in helping the V&A plan a subsequent series of lectures and community exhibition, 'Sacred Spaces', which has been loaned out to various organisations including Sikh museums and gurdwaras. Here are some of the comments:

"Our organisation extends our thanks for enhancing the image of the Sikh community at the most appropriate historical event of the formation of the Khalsa."
The Council of Sikh Gurdwaras in Birmingham

"Keep doing the good work, we wish you the best of luck."
South Asian Elderly Organisation, Southwark Asian Centre

"My students were not just studying 'another religion,' they were inspired"
David McKernan, Cardinal Wiseman R.C.School, Coventry

"Wonderful exhibition and learning experience. I feel better knowing a little more about the Sikhs. Thankyou"
G.Redmond, California, USA

"Inspirational and interesting, makes you proud to be a Sikh."
P.S.Golar, Hounslow

"Wonderful experience. No words would be enough to describe it"
Bhupinder Gill, Greenford.

There were some comments on the content of the exhibition and recommendations on how it could be improved:

"The Sikh exhibition was good but we thought that a lot more to do with Sikhs, could have been on show, paintings of our gurus. Also not everybody could read English, so Panjabi should have been available (in the exhibition itself)."
Guru Nanak Sikh Temple, Wolverhampton

"Our community would like to see more of Sikh bravery and sacrifices fighting against inequality and aggression"
Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Hounslow

"Elderly people find it exhausting walking long corridors without resting places."
Ekta Group, Hounslow

There were ideas on how to take the work out to the regions:

"Maybe things can be loaned for local display as some people find it difficult to travel."
Singh Sabha Gurdwara, Southampton

"A mobile exhibition for Sikh gurdwaras."
Sikh Union, Slough

There were ideas on how to sustain the interest of the Sikh community:

"To have more workshops ... and spacing them out bi-monthly so as to keep the interest going."
Woking Asian Women Association

"We are working on the Sikh Cyber Museum (virtual museum). We intend to approach the V&A for consultation."
The Council of Sikh Gurdwaras in Birmingham

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