The India Museum Revisited
A reconstruction of the museum’s history (c.1800-1879) with special reference to V&A’s collection
About the Project
The former existence of the East India Company’s museum is well known, but its contents and character contents have become obscure. Those encountering the museum from a post-colonial perspective receive a partial and inaccurate character which the present survey seeks to redress.
At the dispersal of the India Museum in 1879 the 20,000 objects transferred to the South Kensington Museum (later the V&A) were inventoried in a catalogue printed for internal use in the following year. That list forms the basis of the analysis and reconstruction presented here, augmented where appropriate by objects surviving in the collections, in order to reunite the contents and their supporting documentation in virtual form and to set them in context. Additionally, the geographical sources of the items are investigated and the identity of the donors to the collection are reviewed.
Although frequently mentioned in the growing literature on colonial history, the absence of easily accessible documentation of the museum has rendered it subject to a great deal of misinterpretation. By bringing together available data on the formation of the collection, its ambitions, its methods of display and its constituent objects, the project aims to restore the museum to its rightful place as one of the most important and influential institutions of its day in London, both in representing the sub-continent to the public and (in its latter years) as a driver of international commerce.
The principal product will be a book with the same title as the project, The India Museum Revisited, written by Andrew W. Mellon Visiting Professor Arthur MacGregor and published by V&A Publications in association with UCL Press. As well as appearing in hard copy (in the course of 2023), the volume will be made freely available on electronic open access through the UCL Press website. The material now presented on the project’s own website and in forthcoming blog posts is intended to complement the book and to make available in greater detail some of the resources on which it has been based.
The catalogue of 1880
The fundamental text relied upon throughout the project has been the Inventory of Objects transferred from [the] India Museum, November 1879, printed in 1880 for internal use but never published for wider circulation. The process of compiling this inventory was undertaken by two teams of museum personnel at the South Kensington Museum, hence the numbering system applied to the objects: one group numbered from 1 to 9821 on pp. 1-190 of the inventory and one from 01 to 09245 on pp. 1a-287a. These are the numbers by which the majority of the items are still identified, now generally with the suffix IS (Indian Section); items surviving in the collection are still identified by those numbers. The 1880 inventory has now been made generally available for the first time through archive.org, courtesy of the National Art Library (see: https://archive.org/details/india-museum-inventory-of-the-collection-of-examples-of-indian-art-and-manufactu). The text, which is fully searchable, includes (on the left side) the IS number mentioned above, which may be used to find surviving items on the V&A’s ‘Explore the Collections’ platform (see: https://www.vam.ac.uk/collections?type=featured). The numbers on the right margin (mostly) refer to the earlier manuscript ‘slip books’ (surviving in 54 binders, each of 250 pages) in the departmental archives of the V&A’s Asian Department.
Arthur MacGregor spent much of his career as a curator at the Ashmolean Museum. There he developed an interest in the history of collecting, on which he has published widely and edits the Journal of the History of Collections. His last book, 'Company ... Read more