The India Museum Archive: cataloguing a colonial collection

April 25, 2024

I recently completed cataloguing the India Museum policy files (MA/70), and would like to share a few stories I discovered while writing the content summaries (also known as scope notes). Some of the files contain language that makes uncomfortable reading by modern standards. In these cases we advise readers of problematic historic language, so they can decide whether they would like to access the file.  

The India Museum

Part of the V&A’s collection of objects from India was originally housed in the museum of the British East India Company, which was renamed the India Museum in 1858 when the India Office took over its administration. By July 1879 there were plans to close the India Museum, and transfer the objects to other institutions. The natural history collections were offered to, and accepted by, the Natural History Museum. The India Office stipulated that the rest of the collection should remain together, and be exhibited to the public. According to a letter written to the editor of The Times in July 1879, there were two reasons for closing the India Museum – cost saving, and low visitor numbers.

Letter published in The Times suggesting that the India Museum was closing because of costs and low visitor numbers
Extract from a letter by W.H. Gregory to the editor of The Times, 20 July 1879, MA/70/1/2

In 1879 it was decided that the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) should be responsible for the collection, as this option was more ‘conducive to economy’, and the South Kensington Museum offered ‘better facilities’ for keeping the collection together, and raising awareness of the collection.

Letter suggesting the South Kensington Museum would be a better home for the collection than the British Museum
Extract from a letter from the India Office to the Science and Art Department, November 1879, MA/70/1/1

The V&A’s Indian Section was formed in 1880 to look after the India Museum collection, as well as the objects from India which the South Kensington Museum had already acquired. The India Museum objects remained in their separate building in South Kensington until it was demolished in 1955 (to make space for the expansion of Imperial College), and the collections were moved to the main V&A building in South Kensington.

Wartime Precautions

Files MA/70/2/4 – 6 offer an insight into the movement of Indian Section objects in World War Two in order to protect them from possible air raid damage. The V&A used three stores: Aldwych tube station in London, Montacute House in Somerset, and the Quarry Store in Wiltshire. Some of the objects were moved within a few weeks of war being declared (September 1939), and subsequent movements of objects took place in April 1942 and April 1943.  

Memo categorising objects for storage during wartime
Internal memo re the preparation of the Quarry Store, 12 August 1941, MA/70/2/4

Objects were categorised as A or B ‘ in order of importance or value’. Some of the objects remained in South Kensington. Category A objects were moved into a safe, and objects which were too large to move from the galleries were protected with sandbags and partitions. Category B objects were moved to the Frame Store.

Repairing a treasured tiger

One of the most well-known objects in the V&A, Tipu’s Tiger (2545(IS), also known as ‘Tippoo’s Tiger’) is a semi-automaton of a tiger that belonged to Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore in southern India. It entered the collection of the British East India Company museum by 1803, and was one of the objects transferred to the V&A in 1879.

Two of the India Museum policy files contain correspondence about damage sustained by Tipu’s Tiger in September 1944 (MA/70/1/15), and its repair in March 1953 (MA/70/1/17). According to the Chief Warder’s report, the object fell from a plinth as two carpenters installing a partition in the Raphael Courts moved it to make space for their ladders. The ‘badly damaged’ object and its detached pieces were taken to the ‘Art Work Room’.  

Memo detail damage to Tipu's Tiger, which fell off a plinth and needed repairs
Internal memo regarding damage of Tipu’s Tiger, 20 July 1879, MA/70/1/15

Frustratingly, there are no documents in MA/70/1 concerning the repair of Tipu’s Tiger in 1944. In February 1953, two tenders were received for the ‘thorough overhaul and repair’ of Tipu’s Tiger, but the only work mentioned is to the mechanical organ, rather than to the wooden structure, suggesting that an in-house repair was carried out sometime between 1944 and 1953. Interestingly, the successful applicant, Henry Willis & Sons Ltd, had repaired Tipu’s Tiger twice before, so it is possible that Henry Willis & Sons Ltd repaired the object in 1944. Work on the new repair commenced in March 1953. Thirteen pipes were constructed to replace missing ones, and the bellows were repaired, costing a total of £35 (the equivalent of about £835 in 2017).

Letter covering insurance arrangements and repair of Tipu's Tiger
Extract from a letter from Henry Willis & Sons Ltd regarding the repair of Tipu’s Tiger, March 1953, MA/70/1/17

The catalogue can be accessed here. Please come and join my public talk about the India Museum in the V&A’s National Art Library at 14.00 on Monday 29 April if you would like to learn more about these fascinating records.

Further reading

India Museum Policy files, MA/70, The V&A Archive

Stronge, Susan, Tipu’s Tigers, V&A Publishing, 2009

Trench, Lucy, The Victoria & Albert Museum, V&A Publishing, 2014

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