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Museums post-1857

By Namrata Sarmah

After 1858, when the power shifted from the company to the crown, the crown started operating more by a policy of seeking consensus and co-option of the local elites, unlike use of brute force in the days before 1857. Now the conquest needed to be epistemological, a conquest of colonial knowledge over the 'native' knowledge.

In colonial context museums proved to be crucial because they helped in building an order of things by naming, classification, collection and exhibition of objects in India. These organizational principles were made to speak in a language which was comprehensible for the white male of the post-Linnaean world, neat, classifiable and orderly. The Oriental Museum of the Asiatic Society, founded in Calcutta in 1814, proved to be inadequate to serve this principle of order and classification. Thus, colonial India's largest and most important museum, the Indian Museum, in 1878 was open to the public in Calcutta as a part of these new project of colonial classifications and organizations. But the trajectory of this change has a very important watershed event, that influenced the museological history of the Indian subcontinent, the revolt of 1857.

The 1857 revolt was a multi-dimensional event. This was one of the first anti-British uprisings that shook the imperial apparatus to its very core. While often called as 'Sepoy Mutiny', because of the Indian sepoys playing a crucial event in the revolt, historians have argued that the mutiny's cause and effects were far extended than being restricted to sepoys only. However, the scope of this paper does not include the political and social implications of the revolt. What I intend to do here is place the events of 1857 as watershed in the context of the evolution of the museological practices in British India.

Before going into how practices were changed after 1857, it is necessary to understand what were the nuances of museological practices before and during 1857. The crux of colonial knowledge about museum was to determine which of the objects found in India by colonial ethnographers and archaeologists should be put in museum and which of them should not. Thus, in due process of this, certain objects transformed into cultural artefacts in the colonial discourse to be put in museums, and certain others did not qualify as such. This process of transformation from object to artefact is multi-layered, with various processes like finding, deciphering, collecting and classifying of objects operating together. Bernard Cohn locates the transformation of objects into artefacts and antiquities as part of a large colonial project to "decipher" the history of India. A system of classification was created to determine what objects are valuable, what should be preserved, what should be kept in museums and what should be brought back into England. Thus, the evaluation of the objects was mostly done from the perspective of the colonial eye.

Cohn argues that in the first half of the 19th century, out of the objects that were brought back from India, the most popular and the valuable were the objects gained via warfare, mostly lootings. Objects looted from Tipu Sultan's palace found themselves on display at the room in the museum of East India Company's headquarter. each of the British conquest in the time period was represented by artefacts being brought back to England, including Ranjit Singh's throne and the Koh-i-noor diamond[3]. The same happened during 1857 as well. This looting actually symbolizes the sense of colonial triumph over the conquered. The 1857 collection included a dagger belonging to Bahadur Shah II, a brass betel box owned by Nana Sahib, Tanti Topi's snuffbox and many other paraphernalia clearly depicting a sense of vanquishing.

Looting was rampant during 1857, by both Indian rebels, colonial soldiers and officials, Indian soldiers who were not revolting, and also by civilians. An eyewitness wrote about the lootings in Lucknow:

Everywhere might be seen people helping themselves to whatever they pleased.. Plunder was the order of the day. Jewels, shawls, dresses, pieces of satin, broadcloths .. . the most magnificent divan carpets studded with pearls . . . books, pictures, European clocks, English clothes, full-dress officers' uniforms, epaulettes, aiguillettes, manuscripts, charms; vehicles of the most grotesque forms, shaped like fish, dragons and sea horses; representations of the prophet's hands; cups, saucers, cooking utensils, chinaware enough to set up fifty merchants in Lombard Street; scientific instruments, ivory, telescopes, pistols etc.

What happened because of this was that many of the artefacts, texts, documents and other historical heritage either got stolen, lost, never recovered, sold or was taken away to Europe. Wiliiam Howard Russel, in his diary mentions about one such incident,

One fellow, having burst open a leaden-looking lid, which was in reality of solid silver, drew out an armlet of emeralds and diamonds and pearls so large that I really believed they were not real stones and that they formed part of a chandelier chain.

' What will your honour give me for these?' said he. 'I'll take a hundred rupees on chance.'

Russell offered a promissory note, as he did not have any money, but the soldier refused to take it. What he wanted was two mohurs and a bottle of rum! It is possible that many valuable objects with possible cultural and historical value were exchanged for trivialities.

Throughout this plunder; cities, heritage sites and architecture were destroyed. Lucknow's famous Residency was almost in ruins. Francis Collins mentions that chandeliers, mirrors, furniture and important pieces of architecture, all were completely rampaged there. The Metcalf house in Delhi had a huge library with over 20,000 books, rare artefacts and Napoleon memorabilia, but much of this treasure was destroyed during the 1857. In another instance, the mosque at Qudsia Bagh built in the eighteenth century by the queen Qudsia Begum was significantly damaged during the mutiny.

However, it was not only that many of the relics were destroyed and lost, but those that remained also underwent certain transformation in their classification and organization and management. The revolt changed the ways museums were perceived in both the colony and the metropole. In 1858, after the revolt was brought into control;, the power over India changed hands from the East India Company to the British crown. Earlier, the collections in the Victoria and Albert museum were overseen by the company. After 1857, , the collections became part of the new India Office and were removed to Fife House in Whitehall where they were opened to the public in I86I. Much of the Natural History material was handed over at this time to the British Museum.

Photograph of the Imperial Museum (erstwhile Calcutta) taken by Francis Frith (Photo Courtesy: Oldindianphotos.in)

As we have seen, the museums (or rather artefacts) were a powerful tool of asserting control, superiority and hegemony over the colonized subjects. The vulgar display of wealth and artefacts looted from the colonized world gave the metropole a sense of conquest, both physical and material over the empire. However, after 1858, when the power shifted from the company to the crown, the crown started operating more by a policy of seeking consensus and co-option of the local elites, unlike use of brute force in the days before 1857. Now the conquest needed to be epistemological, a conquest of colonial knowledge over the 'native' knowledge.

That is why after 1858, the British tools of conquest were mostly epistemological with colonial forms of knowledge trying to penetrate the local orders. The Indian Museum in Calcutta was opened to public in 1878 and the Madras Central Museum became active after 1885. The colonial knowledge now became much more concerned about categorically classifying objects and artefacts in all sphere of life, including museums, with neatly defined categories to display objects. The museums' attempt to create an orderly space was a mimicry of the imperial project of creating a neat, orderly space in the socio-political milieu of the subcontinent.

The content of the museum and the way these contents were transformed from objects to artefacts after 1857 reflects Orientalist approaches implicit in the imperial setup. Orientalism works via a complex nexus of production of knowledge, then dissemination of that knowledge, then establishment of the epistemological hegemony and ultimately the production of consent. When the Orientalist notions were moulded into authoritative discourses generated in the West, the hegemony of these discourses successfully produced consent among the subject populace. That is why Orientalist knowledge was rarely challenged in colonial setups. Thus, when museums in India gradually became active and popular after 1857, it brought into the local people's mind grandiose projection of the empire. The crux of the argument that I wanted to propose through this paper was that, while before 1857 the museums were spaces that emanated the 'pride' of the British empire, after 1857, they became more of tools to legitimize the existence of the empire in India. Because after 1857, the context had changed for the empire to rely more on hegemonic means than outright domination. Museums became part of that shift.


1. Cohn, Bernard S. Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India. Princeton Studies in Culture/Power/History. Princeton University Press, 1996.

2. Hibbert, Christopher. The Great Mutiny India 1857. New York: The Viking Press, 1978.

3. Said, Edward W. 1979. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.

4. Skelton, Robert. “The Indian Collections: I798 to 1978.” The Burlington Magazine 120, no. 902 (Special Issue Devoted to The Victoria and Albert Museum) (May 1978): 296–305.

5. “The ‘Delhie’ Book and a Picnic atop the Qutb!.” A Date With Delhi: Up Close and Personal with a Megacity, February 9, 2013. https://adatewithdelhi.wordpress.com/tag/sepoymutiny/.

Namrata Sarmah is working as a Project Curator at Assam State Museum, Guwahati. She received her Post graduate degree in Museology from National Museum Institute of History of Art, Conservation and Museology. She was one of the participants from India at the annual International Training Programme hosted by The British Museum in 2018.

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