Theses Doctoral

Disjecta Membra: The Life and Afterlife of the India Museum

Kuruvilla, Tara

This dissertation traces the life and afterlife of the short-lived, dismembered (and for several decades, disremembered) collection housed at the East India Company headquarters at Leadenhall Street in London—the India Museum. While much has been written on the amassing of objects and the building of colonial collections, little attention has been paid to the obverse act—dissolution. This study delves into the furor surrounding the India Museum’s fragmentation, examines its recharacterization during politically expedient moments, traces its legacies at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum, and explores parallels between colonial and contemporary (mis)interpretations of the collection. Centering this dissertation on the afterlife rather than simply the inception of the India Museum reveals that the collection retained its identity as a unified body in the British imagination decades after its dispersal. Questioning at what point a museum ceases to exist and how dissolved collections continue to circulate, this dissertation seeks to challenge conventional understandings of museum histories and proposes a longue durée approach for interpreting and engaging with these narratives.

The opening chapter, Expanding the Narrative, offers a new perspective on the institution by foregrounding visual representations and incorporating historically overlooked accounts. This inclusive, image-centric approach aims to contribute a previously unconsidered angle to scholarship on the Museum. The second chapter, “All the Queen’s Horses and All the Queen’s Men”: The Dispersal of the India Museum, examines the critical yet under-theorized moment of the Museum’s dissolution. It applies an analytical lens to the collection’s fragmentation, explores the varying motivations behind the distribution of objects, and contextualizes the dissolution within the broader milieu of nineteenth-century collections in Britain. The third chapter, From “Hugger-Mugger” to “Tangible Monument”: Collective Memory and the India Museum, suggests that the India Museum retained its identity as a distinct entity decades after its absorption into South Kensington.

This study demonstrates how the notoriously heterogeneous East India Company collection was reimagined in the early twentieth century as far more comprehensive and stable than it had ever been in its lifetime, and was ultimately reframed as being of critical import to the imperial project. The final chapter, Lingering Legacies: The India Museum Collection Today, examines the present-day manifestations of the dispersed collection, primarily at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum. It evaluates how effectively these institutions engage with the colonial context of their acquisitions and explores the collection’s framing in physical and digital spaces, including through consideration of discrepancies between gallery narratives and digital representations. The epilogue, The Specter of Empire, reflects on the evolving diplomatic, legal, and ethical positions surrounding the repatriation of Indian antiquities. The charged nature of returning objects from the India Museum collection is discussed in light of the continual reformulations of the colonial past in the former metropole and colony.

Against the backdrop of imperial amnesia, rising nationalist sentiment, and the reevaluation of the colonial past in Britain and India, this dissertation highlights the necessity for academically grounded examinations of colonial-era collecting practices. This study suggests that only through a comprehensive understanding of institutional histories and complex object biographies can the circulation, interpretation, and potential restitution of these contested artifacts be effectively navigated in the present day.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Dehejia, Vidya J.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 18, 2023