The Life of the Devotional Object: The History Museum Context

My research began in London for just one week of endless museum visits. My interest in London was two-fold–not only does it have many museums with collections of South Asian art, but it also has an added complexity being the former sovereign nation in India. Furthermore, many of the collections explain the object to the visitor through it’s historical context, something that I wanted to explore more in my comparisons. The anthropological museum context is a new addition to my project which I am continuing from last summer. In order to further establish what the art museum offers in terms of education through objects, I need to establish what other contexts accomplish as well.

I intended to spend most of my time in the British Museum’s newly renovated South Asian gallery. The British Museum is a massive collection of world cultures and proposes to outline “cultural history” in its display. My initial impressions of the new gallery were positive and I would love to look more into the changes that were made. They seem to be grappling with their intermingled history in Asia through special emphasis on the modern state of the cultures. Unfortunately, the gallery was unexpectedly closed for the rest of the week when I went back the next day. Researching in another country can make small set-backs like this one seem like the end of the world. I was devastated that my plan could not continue as I wanted it to and it took me about half a day to recover.

Luckily, there is another fantastic museum in London called the Victoria & Albert–this one not a history museum but instead showcasing art and design. Although it did not fit perfectly into my plan, I decided to take what I could get and did two days of observation there. Most of my field work involves taking pictures of the labels to transcribe later; taking pictures of the display; making note of elements such as space, lightings, etc; and then sitting and people-watching for hours on end. Informal interviews can be good, but they also interrupt the natural flow of the experience, which I am taking note of as I watch. While taking a video, I got a great clip of two girls taking a selfie with a piece which I am particularly excited about.

All in all, the British Museum fiasco turned out to be positive. In a last minute decision, I found myself on a train to Oxford on my last day in England in order to look at a collection at the Ashmolean Museum. I had a conversation with a museum educator there who had just finished a program with school aged children. The museum turned out to be amazing and I got some great ideas for positive methods of display. I am back home now and combing through my pictures and notes as well as starting to work through my reading list. Since I switched museums at the last minute, I am also setting up phone interviews with staff who were not able to meet on such short notice.