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

In a post-colonial era, the East India Company's museum has attracted commentators who have attributed to it motives unsupported by surviving archival and physical evidence. A new survey will establish an objective basis for future analysis.

Context

At the dispersal of the India Museum the 20,000 objects transferred to the South Kensington Museum (later the V&A) were inventoried in a catalogue printed for internal use in 1880. That list has formed the basis of the analysis and reconstruction presented here, in which the contents are reunited in virtual form and are set in context. Additionally, the sources of the items are investigated and the donors to the collection are reviewed.

Aim

In the growing literature on colonial history mention is frequently made of the museum, but in the absence of accessible contemporary records it has been subject to a great deal of misinterpretation. By bringing together available data on the formation of the collection, its display and its constituent objects, the India Museum will be restored 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 trade.

Outcomes

The principal product will be a book, to be published (with the same title as the project) in 2023 by V&A Publications in association with UCL Press. As well as appearing in hard copy, the volume will be freely available on open access through the UCL Press website. The material presented here and in forthcoming blog posts is intended to complement the book and to make available in greater detail some of the most important resources on which it has been based.

Project Outputs

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.

The Team
Arthur MacGregor
Andrew W. Mellon Visiting Professor

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

2 Asian Department Advisers
Susan Stronge
- Senior Curator
Nick Barnard
- Curator
Avalon Fotheringham
- Curator
3 Conservation and Collections Management Department Advisers
Pamela Young
- Collections Documentation and Procedures Manager
Neil Carleton
- Senior Documentation Officer
Background image: Gilt copper standard 'alam, pierced and engraved, presented to General Lake by the Mughal Emperor Shah 'Alam, India, ca.1804