Baggage and Belonging: Military Collections and the British Empire (1750-1900)

From 2017-2020, Henrietta Lidchi is seconded as the Principal Investigator on the AHRC funded project Baggage and Belonging

Over 130 military museums in the UK preserve the historical collections of British regiments, corps and services. Their collections contain artefacts acquired by British servicemen in colonial warfare and on imperial garrison duties across the globe, variously acquired as trophies, prize, souvenirs, curios and specimens. These artefacts are little known outside the constituency of military history and within their current institutions rarely researched in reference to their complex intercultural biographies.

Focussing on military campaigns in India and Africa from 1750 to 1900, this project will undertake an interdisciplinary reappraisal of military collections. By tracing collections histories through archival evidence it will both investigate the meaning of non-European artefacts in military organisational culture and their value as material witnesses of encounters between non-European peoples and imperial forces. Research questions include:

1. What does the pattern of taking, recording and modification of objects tell us about the characteristics of British military collecting in the context of colonial and imperial warfare?

2. How does a more nuanced analysis of the transference of objects in war revise our understanding of colonial and post-colonial relationships?

3. How did military governance, cultural sanction and contingency work to establish boundaries around the taking and disposal of objects?

4. How can we address the tensions between the original communal role of these military collections and their contemporary function in public military museums?

The material legacy of non-European military campaigns in military and non-military museums is widespread, yet the systematic understanding of this legacy is virtually absent from the analytical and historical literature. Military collecting offers an under-developed source for critically reappraising the linkages between museum collections and imperial history in the post-colonial period.

Colonial African and Indian campaigns (estimated as 60-70% of total non-European collections) will be tracked through multiple military museum collections examined in tandem with institutional records, archives, registers, as well as biographies, diaries and photographs related to individual collectors. An in-depth examination of objects and documents will deliver a more multifaceted understanding of military governance, communal military culture and individual agency. The project will highlight hidden histories of taking and retention, going beyond the simplistic view of all such military artefacts as 'loot'. This revisionist approach will allow comparisons across former European imperial powers of a complex and controversial topic. It will enable a critical reassessment of the relevance of these collecting practices and material legacies today.

The multidisciplinary project team at National Museums Scotland (NMS) will be supported by an academic and museum-based Advisory Board drawn from the fields of visual and museum anthropology, military history, military anthropology and archaeology. Comparative analysis will draw on research from previous pilot projects undertaken on campaigns in Tibet, China, New Zealand and North America. The National Army Museum (NAM), the project partner, also holds extensive collections and has the wider networks (including the Army Museums Ogilby Trust) to assist with the delivery of knowledge exchange workshops and the organisation of the international seminar.

Outputs will include two knowledge exchange workshops, an international seminar, a special exhibition (National War Museum, National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh), enhanced gallery interpretation (National Army Museum, London; National Museum of Scotland and National War Museum, Edinburgh), community engagement, online features and pdf catalogue information, and 3-4 publications (articles and a book in addition to non-refereed articles).

(Standard Research Grant Ref: AH/P006752/1)

For more about this project, see here.

 

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Staff

Henrietta Lidchi
Chief Curator
+31880042922