Decolonizing Collections

Archival trip to Nashik: Reflections on where Knowledge is Located

After passing the first milestone of my PhD, the upgrade submission and viva in May, I headed to India, my home country, to spend the summer break recharging with my family. Another reason to spend the break in India was to explore the archives located in India. 

As historians who collect sources from archives, it is also useful to think about the geography of knowledge, where it lies, who gets access to it and who is unable to gain that privilege. Access to primary sources determines the ability to write histories from them, and as Rakesh Ankit writes, we need to “ask why sources are available and how their availability is organised. The sources for my research include material culture like coins, their accompanying documentation such as accession records as well as correspondence and personal papers of coin collectors and numismatologists. During the time of colonial rule in India, European collectors collected coins in South Asia but then handed them to museums in the UK. Hence, crucial information about their collection and dispersal also found its way to various museums in the UK. For instance, five boxes of papers belonging to the collector R B Whitehead are now housed in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Information about other South Asian coins and their collection and provenance are also located in other museums like the British Museum in London and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. This knowledge transfer, however, also created restrictions on access. While many archives and libraries have made efforts towards digitisation, access to important collections still remains limited to scholars based in or travelling to places like the UK. It means that scholars from India, like me, who wish to research these coins must travel to the UK to be able to see the coins in person. While studying in the UK gives me this access, this could be a process ladened with bureaucratic and financial difficulties for many. 

As I try to reconstruct the role of Indian collectors and scholars in collecting South Asian coins and producing scholarship on Indian history and numismatics, I found the traces of their lives and work were left in India. In the nineteenth and twentieth century, some Indian collectors donated their coins to the museums emerging in India such as the Prince of Wales Museum in Bombay (now the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya) the Lahore Museum in Punjab and the India Museum in Kolkata. Several research institutions were also established by Indians which became forums for discussions on Indian history and numismatics. The foremost among them for numismatics was the Numismatic Society of India, established in 1910 by five European and one Indian collector, Framji Thanawala. Following on its heels, many numismatic societies were established in other cities like Kolkata and Bombay. They became local centres for coin collectors, museum professionals and scholars to gather and discuss issues on Indian coins.

In post-independence India, an institution dedicated solely to academic scholarship on Indian numismatics was founded in 1980 in Nashik in western India. Named the Indian Institute of Research in Numismatic Studies, the IIRNS was founded to further research in Indian Numismatics by eminent numismatist Dr Parmeshwari Lal Gupta and industrialist K K Maheshwari. Many other collectors’ collections and scholars’ books also made their way to the IIRNS in Nashik. Dr P M Joshi’s (historian of the Deccan) library was received as a gift in 1993 and that of Dr Shobhana Gokhale (epigraphist, numismatist, and professor at Deccan College) in 2003. Dr P L Gupta himself played a crucial role in expanding the institute’s resources, personally writing to colleagues to send their papers, photos or coins.  

Renamed the Indian Numismatic, Historical and Cultural Research Foundation’ (INHCRF) in 2007, the institute houses everything anyone researching Indian numismatics might need under one roof. It has a vast library containing major books and issues of all journals related to Indian numismatics. It also houses a museum and delivers courses in Indian numismatics, epigraphy, and archaeology for students. Indeed, the INHCRF is a one-stop destination for scholars’ needs relating to secondary and even primary material on this subject.

In July, I consulted their archives which hold papers and correspondence of numismatists who worked on Indian coins. I rummaged through boxes and shelves of correspondence of the pioneers of Indian numismatics, photographs of whom also graced the library’s wall. The archives had papers of Dr P.M. Joshi (1904-1989), a historian of the Deccan who held the newly created post of Director of Archives and Historical Monuments of the Government of Bombay, Dr Amjad Ali of Warangal who worked on Deccan numismatics, Stan Goron, collector of Indian coins and Editor of the Journal of the Oriental Numismatic Society, Mohammad Abdul Wali Khan, Keeper of coins of the State Museum of Hyderabad who later also became Director of Archaeology and Museums of the region and others. Their papers gave me an insight into the world of coin collecting, how collectors exchanged duplicates, negotiated prices, made arrangements for the safe courier of precious coins and sought each other’s help when they couldn’t travel far. Laced with personal anecdotes, the letters reflected the excitement of finding a precious coin or the disappointment at having lost their carefully built collection, all showing people’s passion for the subject.

Thus, the vast material available in their archive provided some interesting sources for my research. I could trace close relationships that existed between various figures and see centres of numismatic research emerging in places like Hyderabad. They gave a good insight into coin collecting and research in post-Independence India. Collecting these materials helped me better understand the role of Indian scholars in advancing numismatic research in India, in their professional capacities as collectors, museum professionals, librarians, historians, as well as active members of various research institutes in India. 

The Institute’s staff were particularly helpful, including the Director, Dr Riza Abbas, the Curator Mr Abhijit Srivastava, and the Librarian Mrs Naghmi Abbas. I am certain that I would find my way back to Nashik to access their vast range of archival and library holdings again.

Decolonizing Collections

Research Trip to London

In late March of 2021, I spent my time library hopping searching and gathering data from archival records for my doctoral research in London. I spent a week in various archives, libraries and museums, interacted with a range of written sources and artefacts and discussed my research with staff at these institutions. 

My first stop was the British Library. Here I examined the library’s coin handlists, a list giving all their South Asian coin holdings with their respective details, to check if the coin collectors I am researching donated any coins to the India Office Library, which contained the records of the administration in London of the East India Company and the pre-1947 government of India. These collections were subsequently merged with what became the British Library in London. 

The British Library

Besides my doctoral research, I volunteer with the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in Exeter. I work with World Cultures curator, Tony Eccles, researching the story of the donors who have donated objects to the museum. This research took me to the London Metropolitan Archives where I was following the company records of Peek Brothers and Company, dealers in tea, coffee, and spices. One of their members, an astronomer, Sir Cuthbert Edgar Peek, donated 157 ethnographic artefacts to RAMM in 1900. In the two days spent in the archives, I was looking for clues to understand how he acquired the objects he donated to RAMM. 

London Metropolitan Archives

To unwind on the second day, I went to the Wellcome collection, a free museum and library exploring health and human experience. I viewed their exhibition Rooted Beings which is a powerful commentary on our relationships with plants. The exhibition also addressed the impacts of colonial expeditions on the exploitation of natural resources and indigenous knowledges as well as showcased how their cultivation helped in the expansion of Empire. Another exhibition, Medicine Man narrated the history of Sir Henry Wellcome, the collector whose collections found the bulk of the objects in the museum. The objects were interspersed with short textual commentaries from artists, scholars and creative practitioners where they tried to address the collection’s colonial legacies in thought-provoking ways. I was very inspired by this creative technique to address difficult histories. The Wellcome collection’s reading room, which is a quirky and interesting hybrid of a library and museum, was a great spot to end the day and catch up on some emails and work. 

The primary purpose of this research trip to London was to examine the coin collections and records in the British Museum. This material would then help me write a chapter on R B Whitehead, one of the collectors I am researching. I had an appointment in the Coins and Medals Department Reading Room, where I examined the coin catalogues of the museum to understand the acquisition histories of their South Asian collections. The accession registers and museum minutes gave me further insights into how the acquisition of the coins was negotiated between the collector and the museum. 

The British Museum

In the British Museum, I met with the staff in the South Asia as well as the Coins and Medals department. Dr Helen Wang, Curator of East Asian Money helped me navigate the department’s archives and collections and understand how acquisition records were kept and stored. Dr Sushma Jansari, Tabor Foundation Curator of South Asia, was kind enough to give me some insights into her curatorial practice and where she has highlighted Indian voices through various objects in the museum’s South Asia gallery. 

My supervisors, Professor Nandini Chatterjee and Dr Shailendra Bhandare joined me in the Museum. We looked at some of the Mughal coins in the collection together. It was very exciting to discuss the iconography and provenance of these coins, especially that of Mughal Emperor Jahangir’s (r. 1605- 27) famous zodiacal coins. I had written my Masters’ dissertation on Jahangir’s contentious relationship with his father, the emperor Akbar (r. 1555- 1605). Jahangir often used portraits, architecture, and paintings to express his idiom of rule. I had examined the imagery on some of Jahangir’s coins in the dissertation through photographs online. However, holding the coins in my hand and experiencing their texture, size and materiality were thrilling. 

In the five days, I had a wonderful time traversing various museums and libraries in the city. Their collections, display practices and innovative exhibitions gave me plenty of food for thought. I left the city very excited to incorporate the archival material I researched into the writing of my thesis. 

Decolonizing Collections

Research Trip to Oxford

My PhD project has been designed in collaboration with the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. The museum has an extensive collection of South Asian coins, which are the core objects for my research. At the end of November 2021, I travelled to Oxford to examine the collections and visit the Ashmolean for the first time. In a fortunate coincidence, snow greeted me on my first day in Oxford. I tried to make the most of the chilly Sunday by exploring the city and keeping cosy with hot chocolate.

Snow in Oxford

Food indulgences aside, I also took the time to visit the Oxford Museum of Natural History Museum  as well as the Pitt Rivers Museum. Both were a treat, and I came across some interesting stories such as the history of the Museum of Natural History which was narrated in the museum’s panels. The Pitt Rivers was remarkable in the abundance of objects in their overflowing display cases. Contentious histories of their collections were however directly addressed such as in the chart showing the global spread of the human remains cared for by the museum. I also appreciated that the museum took active steps by making critical changes to its displays as part of its decolonisation process. Placed right at the outset, new text panels talked about how the museum is not a neutral space and addressed its complicated past.

In the Pitt Rivers Museum, an exhibition titled Beyond the Binary addressed ideas about the binaries we often classify people in. Designed in collaboration with over 40 communities, the exhibition displayed conventional museum collections in a new light, using the objects to narrate stories about LGBTQIA+ communities. For me, the highlight was the story of the Sikh princess, Catherine Hilda Duleep Singh. An active suffragette in London, she was the second daughter of the Sikh ruler Maharaja Duleep Singh. It was inspiring to hear about an Indian woman who campaigned for women’s rights in England. As a quote written by Shakira Morar said, “Throughout history queer women of colour are erased, omitted or forgotten”. The display, however, recounted Catherine’s relationship with her German governess, Lina Schafer, through objects and literary devices like poems. 

In the next few days, I explored the coin collections at Ashmolean and met many of the wonderful staff that works at the museum. My supervisor, Dr Shailendra Bhandare walked me through the museum’s coin collections where I learnt about the coin cataloguing and classification practices of museums. Holding the coins in my hand was an exhilarating feeling. Coin collections, as he discussed with me, are stored in small cabinets which are made especially for this purpose. The coins are usually organised regnally, which means that the coins are arranged by the emperor who issued them, and then followed by the emperor who ruled after the former, so that Mughal emperor Akbar’s coins will be followed by the coins of his son Jahangir and so on. Within each emepror’s issues, the coins are placed according to the mint place in an alphabetical fashion so that within Akbar’s coins, mint towns with the letter A will be followed by the letter B and so on.

The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

It was most exciting to be in the Heberden Coin Room at the museum which holds the coin collections of the Ashmolean. One can also use the room’s reference books to research and learn more about the objects. Dr Bhandare informed me of ticketing practices where coins are placed in their slots with tiny tickets. Each ticket lists the coins’ accession details and on occasion, might also include notes made by the original collector and scholar. Looking for similar tickets across various museums’ will be a useful way to trace the trajectories of the coins and thus find their collecting histories. 

On the next day, I also had the chance to meet some fellow students working on CDP PhD projects with various museums in Oxford at a lunch organised by the Gardens, Libraries, Archives and Museums (GLAM) team. It was wonderful to hear about their exciting research projects over lunch. 

At the Ashmolean itself, I met Julian Baker, Curator of Medieval and Modern Coins, and Matthew Winterbottom, Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts, both of whom were kind enough to discuss my project with me. I had an interesting chat with Matthew about his Anglo-Indian heritage and Julian helped me navigate the coin room’s records system. My supervisor also introduced me to the director of the Ashmolean Museum, Dr Alexander Sturgis. I was honoured to meet him in person, and he was very supportive of my project.

The next day, my supervisor organised a coin handling workshop where he spoke about various types of ancient coins, their history and interesting iconographies. Discussing these stories with the students made for an enriching afternoon where I learnt about the value of coins as a source for constructing the history of India.

Gold ‘Zodiacal’ Mohur of Jahangir (r.1605-1627), Sagittarius or the 9th month of the Persian Solar Calendar, struck at Agra in Islamic year AH1029 and regnal year 14. The inscription on the reverse alludes to Jahangir and the name of the mint in verse form. Ashmolean Museum

In the evening we visited the Sackler library, where Dr Bhandare walked me through some useful references for the field of numismatics held in the library. We examined the Proceedings for the Numismatic Society of India as well as the Numismatic Supplement to the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal. My supervisor gave me useful tips on how to use these texts for tracing the Indian collectors for my research.

During the trip, I also got the chance to visit the History Faculty Library at the Radcliffe Camera and the Bodleian Libraries. Truly majestic buildings, both hold a wealth of useful texts on many subjects including archaeology and history which are valuable for research. 

Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

Overall, the visit to the Ashmolean and Oxford was an educative one. I familiarised myself with the coin collections and got the exciting chance to hold these objects in my hand. I met some very helpful people and was able to discuss their projects as well as mine. I learned about cataloguing and classifying practices from my supervisor, all of which will form a crucial part of my research methodology. The wealth of resources that Oxford, especially its museums and libraries, offers will certainly keep calling me back to the city.