South Asian Collectors at the British Museum


The project is entitled The Global and the National: South Asian Collectors at the British Museum and will examine the role of South Asian and British South Asian collectors and donors in the making of British museums from the eighteenth century to the present day. The successful applicant will gain a unique opportunity to benefit from training and a placement at the British Museum, conduct research into its collections and archives, and carry out funded fieldwork in South Asia.

There is little understanding today of the rationales, opportunities and methods of non-European and BAME collectors who made donations to or major collections for UK museums. British museums are more often seen as storehouses of ‘colonial booty’, and spaces where the West represents ‘the rest’.

With a focus on the British Museum, the studentship will ask: What have been the material and intellectual contributions of donors from South Asia and of South Asian heritage to British public collections? Who were these donors? How many are there? Why did they collect and donate (and how do their motivations differ from others?) What were their relationships with and attitudes to the institutions they supported?

Initial research has identified a wide range of South Asian and British South Asians from the colonial to post-Independence periods who amassed ancient and contemporary collections for the British Museum. They include Dr Bhagwanlal Indraji (1839–88) who discovered, researched and bequeathed the museum’s preeminent inscribed Mathura lion capital (c.100 CE), and Rai Bahadur Hiralal (1867–1934) who formed the museum’s substantial Gond collection (Madhya Pradesh) as part of the Ethnographic Survey of India (1901). More recently, Shireen Akbar (1944–1997), the influential British Asian educationalist who held key community liaison posts in the 1980–90s, sold her contemporary ethnographic material from Dhaka to the museum.

In considering these and other donors and collectors to the British Museum, the project seeks to explore how South Asian (ethno)nationalisms, cosmopolitan ideals, and imperial and post-imperial loyalties may have contributed to and challenged Enlightenment thinking and more recent conceptions of the ‘universal’ in museums. At its core, the project asks: how do these South Asian and British South Asian donors and their collections challenge our understanding of the British Museum’s purpose and history?

The project will also examine the British Museum in relation to other UK institutions: how representative is the BM in its association with these collectors and donors? Is the BM’s pattern exceptional, or is this a broader ‘hidden history’ in UK museums? The student will have the scope to identify specific collectors and donors for in-depth investigation, a potential regional specialism, as well as these other UK institutions for comparison. The donors identified so far are clearly exceptional figures in histories of collecting, South Asia and British museums.

This project responds to this challenge by asking a further central research question: how can we engage with exceptional individuals and account for their impact on institutional histories? What role does the extraordinary collector or donor have in museum studies?

The successful applicant will benefit from training in using the British Museum’s collections database and in archival research. They will conduct a placement in the British Museum’s Asia department, supporting the British Museum’s involvement in the Manchester Museum’s South Asia Gallery through object selection and research, and community engagement projects. They will also be supported to develop a public event and resource detailing the histories of some of the most important South Asian and British South Asian donors to the British Museum.

International women collectors

Beaded baby-carrier. Sarawak, 19th–20th century. Sushma Jansari, Curator of Asian Ethnographic and South Asia Collections 16 March 2018

Between the 19th century and the present day, many women collected objects during their travels around the world and either donated or sold this material to the British Museum. In this post, I look at four exceptional women who travelled and collected in South Asia, Siberia and Southeast Asia: Lady Florentina Sale, Kate Marsden, Susi Dunsmore and Shireen Akbar. Objects from the collections of Lady Sale and Shireen Akbar can be seen in the newly refurbished Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia (Room 33).

Lady Florentina Sale (1790–1853)

Lady Sale travelled to different parts of the British Empire across the world with her husband, Sir Robert Sale (1782–1845), who was a British army officer.

Richard James Lane (1800–1872) after Maria Moseley, Portrait of Lady Sale. Lithograph on chine collé, 1845.


Sir Robert fought in many military campaigns, including the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839–1842). During this war, Lady Sale and others were taken hostage in Kabul for some nine months by Afghan forces, before she bribed the guards to release them in 1842. During her captivity, Lady Sale kept a diary which she later published as A Journal of the Disasters in Afghanistan (1843), and it became a bestseller. Her diaries and letters are now held at the British Library. While she was in Afghanistan, Lady Sale acquired some ancient coins and donated 20 of them to the British Museum. One is on display in the South Asia section of Room 33.

Coin of Agathocles. The square coin has an Indian goddess with a Brahmi inscription on one side, and a panther and a Greek inscription on the other side. Greco-Bactrian. c. 190–180 BC.
Coin of Agathocles. The square coin has an Indian goddess with a Brahmi inscription on one side, and a panther and a Greek inscription on the other side. Greco-Bactrian. c. 190–180 BC.
Kate Marsden (1859–1931)

Marsden was a nurse, traveller and author who was elected one of the first female Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society. She also founded Bexhill Museum in East Sussex. Kate Marsden dedicated her life to help and care for those suffering from leprosy. She received the support of Queen Victoria and Maria Feodorovna, the Empress of Russia, to travel to Siberia so that she could help the lepers living there.

Wooden choron used to hold kumis (fermented mare’s milk). Made by Yakult. Siberia.
Wooden choron used to hold kumis (fermented mare’s milk). Made by Yakult. Siberia.

Her journey and work there was described in her book, On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers (1892). During her travels in Siberia, she acquired some objects which she later donated to the British Museum.

Fur and leather mat from Siberia.
Fur and leather mat from Siberia.
Susi Dunsmore (1927–2017)

Dunsmore was a writer and lecturer specialising in textile crafts. She lived and worked in many places around the world, including Nepal, Sarawak and Belize. In eastern Nepal, Susi Dunsmore learned about spinning and weaving allo (Himalayan giant nettle) from local women.

Woven cotton textile to be made up into a cap (topi). Nepal, 1980–1990.
Woven cotton textile to be made up into a cap (topi). Nepal, 1980–1990.

In turn, Marsden helped them to develop their skills and introduce money-making, handwoven products.

Beaded baby-carrier. Sarawak, 19th–20th century.

She collected many textiles and objects (mostly woven) from both Nepal and Sarawak and donated over 100 of them to the British Museum.

Embroidered bamboo hat. A note inside the brim reads, ‘Ahmad Zaini your ever obedient ex-student.’ Sarawak, 19th–20th century.

Shireen Akbar (1944–1997)

Living in Tower Hamlets, Akbar worked with the Bangladeshi diaspora community – particularly women and children – from the 1970s onwards. She formed successful collaborations between the local community, art galleries and museums, and also co-curated some exhibitions. Ms Akbar amassed a large collection of over 300 rickshaw paintings, a rickshaw, posters, household objects and other material from Dhaka in Bangladesh, which she sold to the British Museum.

Rickshaw panel painting from Dhaka, Bangladesh.

The rickshaw paintings and the rickshaw were displayed in the exhibition ‘Traffic Art’ at the Museum of Mankind between 1988 and 1991.

Rickshaw made in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

One of these rickshaw paintings and a photograph of the rickshaw are on display in Room 33.

Figure of a deer made in Dhaka, Bangaldesh.