Dr. Katie Faulkner
Exhibiting Empire: A Case Study of the Victoria and Albert’s South Asian Gallery
The development of museums and exhibitions in Britain in the 19th century coincided with the expansion of colonialism and imperialism. Such institutions, therefore, were constructed as the platforms for the British to display and project the images of the colonies under the regime of the Empire. The purpose of these exhibitions was not simply to educate the Britons about colonies, but more vitally, seemed to “represent the amity and togetherness of the human community.” This mission to promote the unity and diversity in the Empire could be glanced through as a good intention from the museums, making efforts to bring people from different cultures closer. However, the implication under these exhibitions bears a “complex interrelationship between nationalism and internationalism,” which is the foundation for modern issues of orientalism and racism.
In this essay, I will examine the imperial heritage and legacies in the South Asia gallery in the Victoria and Albert museum. The Victoria and Albert museum is one of the major cultural establishments in Britain in the 19th century, and has been the main source of colonial knowledge. Therefore, it is crucial to study its representation of the colonial world, especially the South Asia region and the relationship between British Empire and India. I will analyze the gallery’s curation and interpretation, to see how the collection plays an important role in the colonists’ justification of the dispossession of South Asian cultures. Throughout the essay, I will also argue that the most substantial imperial heritage the gallery and the museum address is the orientalism and ethnocentrism ideologies that form racial and cultural issues in the Post-colonial society.
The South Asia gallery displays a collection of cultural objects, religious artifacts and distinctive artworks from the Southern part of Asia, focusing on India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The trail of the gallery is chronological, starts from the Pre-Mughal India period, continues to Rajput Courts and the Deccan, and ends at the colonized era, with European invasion and the relationship between Britain and India. The objects in the gallery represent a wide range of artistic styles, influenced by Mughal Empire, along with Hindu, Jain, Sikh, and other Muslim dynasties spanning throughout the enriched history of the region. The “India and Britain” part of the gallery also contains luxury goods and contemporary artworks with elements of cultural fusion. The mission of the gallery is to reflect “the rich heritage of South Asia and its complex history of global trade, immigration and colonial rule.”
The curation of V;A’s South Asia Gallery: Addressing the heritage of exoticism
The curation of the gallery purposefully follows the ideal of art museums as “ritual sites.” The setting of the gallery simulates a temple, with a colonnade placed at the center of the room (figure 1). The curator also chooses a murky lighting for the gallery, intentionally invoking the feeling of entering a religious space. Moreover, the entrance of the gallery is guarded by two sculptures of the “Wish-Fulfilling Cow” (figure 2), a Hindu mythological creature symbolizing luck and desire. This is a representation of exoticism, a trend in European art and design that gained popularity following European colonialism. The idea of exoticism is to create a space that Other-izes the representative cultures in the gallery, deeming them as the “inferior”, the “alien”. It reflects the British Empire’s mystical and mythical fantasy of its colonies’ culture and people. All the curating elements mentioned above play a part in assisting that fantasy. The choice of lighting contrasts the European galleries in the museum, which often have the conventional open space and naturally bright lighting. It therefore distinguishes the South Asian spaces from the European spaces, establishing a position of “us versus the others,” our cultural norm versus the foreign. The simulation of a temple, decorated by “exotic” textiles and artifacts, adds depth to the oriental gaze of the European spectators, looming a vision of a far-off land. This creation of foreign and unfamiliar space is noted by Paul Fox as “a collection of objects constructed an image of a place previously unknown to European.” Ultimately, the curation of the South Asia gallery symbolizes the connection between educational and ritual purposes and imperial motives, as it creates the effect of “travelling around the world” for the spectators. It is a racist heritage of the British Empire, a racially inappropriate attempt to showcase the knowledge of other cultures.
right-130175Figure 2 Unknown, Kamadhenu or ‘Wish-fulfilling cow’, early 20th century, Polychromed wood, from South-East Asia, Room 47b, Victoria and Albert Museum
Figure 2 Unknown, Kamadhenu or ‘Wish-fulfilling cow’, early 20th century, Polychromed wood, from South-East Asia, Room 47b, Victoria and Albert Museum
Figure 1 Unkown, Colonnade, Ajmer, 1st half 17th century, Serpentine stone, South Asia Room 41, Victoria and Albert Museum
Continuing the discussion of exoticism as an imperial heritage, Tim Barringer comments “the representations of the world which it offered were deeply imbedded in the developing culture of Victorian imperialism.” Thomas Richards also describes the collection and the idea of ‘imperial archive’ as a “fantasy of knowledge made into power.” This fantasy fabricated by the Britain demonstrates the epitome of ethnocentrism, conceiving itself as the heart of the Empire. This hubris is evident through the way that the gallery exhibits Indian raw materials, especially precious stones and textiles. These priceless objects are perceived in the exhibition as “royal gifts from subordinate colonial rulers and peoples” to the British Empire as imperial tributes. It illustrates a sense of servitude of the colonized opposed to the dominating oppressor. Linda Smith commenting on this issue, stated “colonialism was not just about collection. It was also about re-arrangement, re-presentation and re-distribution.” This relationship of the oppressed and the oppressor, the dominated and the ruler, re-affirms the arrogance of the British Empire, setting path for racial issues in post-colonialism in modern era.
A more dangerous implication of British ethnocentrism is the establishment of a false sense of nationalism. The curation of the gallery, though holds conviction of presenting the beauty of South Asian artworks, can project a sentiment of glorifying the Empire. While the innocent spectators contemplate on the arts, they detach themselves from the brutal reality of the British Empire exercising on the South Asian lands. The narrative of the gallery, accompanied with the mission of “celebrating the arts”, successfully manipulates the sentiment of the viewers so that any sense of sympathy toward the Indians is quickly replaced by the attitude of staying neutral and enjoying the beauty of arts. National identity in this case is just a veil for ethnocentrism, a cover-up for the harsh truth of oppression, of inhumane treatments, of heinous acts, and of evil.
Furthermore, the gallery also promotes the imperial national identity by purposefully arranges the objects in the most ostentatious and luxurious way. The overwhelming experience of walking through the gallery, then, would suppress any contemplation of guilt and horror of the British Empire, and the audience instead is instantly struck with the feeling of awe, of inspiration, and of pride. This element is also witnessed in The Great Exhibition, described by Charlotte Bronte:
“Its grandeur does not consist in one thing, but in the unique assemblage of all things. … It seems as if only magic could have gathered this mass of wealth from all the ends of the earth – as if none but supernatural hands could have arranged it thus, with such as blaze and contrast of colours and marvelous power of effect.”
This curating method of stunning, accompanied with the major theme of exoticism discussed earlier, successfully alienates the viewers from the full context of the artworks, from the historical narratives of both sides. The gallery space forges a “magical” sensation, a fantasy of a far-off land, and an admiration of the Empire’s “mass of wealth.” It thus minimizes or even removes the remarks of the Indians, who were victims of this atrocious colonialism, from the space of the gallery. At the end, the curation of the South Asia gallery is only served to convey the imperial heritage from the narrative of the British Empire.
The interpretation of V;A’s South Asia Gallery: Telling story from one side
“We tend to change the narrative of our own lives by omitting embarrassing stories and highlighting proud moments.”
It is important to examine the interpretation of the objects in the V&A’s South Asia Gallery to gain a better understanding of the imperial heritage. Discussing the meaning of an object, Tim Barringer explains that “the removal of objects from a colonial periphery to the imperial centre profoundly alters the ways in which they are understood.” He then reiterates that “interpretation of objects is determined by labels, guides and catalogues.” Indeed, the scope of interpreting and understanding the contexts of the artworks relies entirely upon the labels and texts provided to us by the curator. Therefore, the knowledge gained from the gallery can be manipulated, in our case, by not only removing perspectives, but also changing tones of the contexts. The way we interpret colonial objects is thus heavily compromised, and suddenly the gallery becomes not a place for self-contemplation, but a vessel served for the Empire’s political agenda.
The gallery’s interpretation of the artworks is reflected through its response to their artistic values. The gallery is saturated with objects collected from markets and bazaars, goods that were not high-end pieces of art, but used every day by the native people; and the texts followed these objects, especially fabrics, always emphasized the handicraft element as the way that we should appreciate and comprehend their beauty. This interpretation is better explained through the praise of Sir George Birdwood: “In India, everything is hand wrought, and everything, down to the cheapest toy or earthenware vessel, is more or less a work of art.” While the praise could be a genuine recognition of the handicraft skills among the arts, it creates this detrimental subtext of racism, as it establishes a cultural and racial hierarchy. The arts are perceived and embraced as a symbol of something culturally appealing but primitive, raw, and ‘uncivilized’. This interpretation subsequently bears a comparison between Western arts (civilized and sophisticated aesthetical beauty) and Eastern arts (rudimentary, primitive, inferior).
Finally, I want to examine one of the most prominent spectacles in the gallery, the ‘Tippoo’s Tiger’ (Figure 3). The wooden tiger with an organ inside its body was discovered in the palace’s music room and shipped to London. The object has become one of the most popular items in the history of exhibiting Empire, from the Indian Museum, to South Kensington as we know as the Victoria and Albert Museum today. It can be considered, however, as an embodiment of violent triumphalism. The eye-catching feature of the object is so unique, that it completely distracts the audience from the fact that it was a one of many royal treasuries looted from the Siege of Seringapatam in 1799. This controversy of the British State holding precious artefacts of other countries is not something new, as we notice the Elgin Marbles being stolen from Greece, or the bust of Queen Nefertiti looted from Egypt. The interpretation and implication of this predicament truly shows the attempt of the British Empire to re-write the history, and to re-arrange the structure of the world as them being the superior. Barringer brilliantly attacks the implication of these objects by stating that “such display made no contribution to the museum’s original mission … but rather offered the Victorian public the spectacle of the remains of a defeated enemy whose perceived status as a racial and cultural inferior was implicit in the mode of display.” The wooden tiger, along with many priceless items in the room, were actually nothing more than just victorious trophies of the Empire, representing the imperial heritage that is egotistical and boastful.
Figure 3 Uknown, Tippoo’s Tiger, Mysore, 1793, Painted wood with metal fixtures, South Asia, Room 41, Victoria and Albert Museum
The colonialism era is one of the most pivotal period in the history of the world, consisting the most complex interrelationship between the British Empire and its colonies. Therefore, studying its heritage and representation of colonialism is such a pivotal responsibility in goal of constructing the history of the world and tracing back the roots of racial issues in the modern world. While the South Asia gallery in the Victoria and Albert Museum shows its utmost efforts to objectively inform the history of the Empire, and I do applaud it for that, it is undeniable that the trails of the racist mentality of the Empire echo around in the gallery. As long as the voices of the colonies are silent, and the narratives of the British State is dominant, the imperial heritage in the gallery would remain bias, and racism stays alive and well.
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Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 1999.
Victoria and Albert Museum, South Asia Gallery.