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Baggage and Belonging: Collecting practices of the British Army

This collaborative research partnership reappraises motivations for military collecting. It investigates cultures of collecting by members of the British armed forces while on campaign and garrison duty in Africa and India during the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Last updated: 22 February 2022

About the project

In 2017 National Museums Scotland was awarded a major grant by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AH/P006752/1) to examine the rich and diverse material legacy of late 18th and 19th-century British military campaign, building on pilot projects funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the British Academy/Leverhulme, and conducted in partnership with the National Army Museum.

Over 130 military museums in the UK preserve the historical collections of British regiments, corps and services. Their collections contain artefacts acquired by British servicemen in colonial warfare and on imperial garrison duties across the globe, variously acquired as trophies, prize, souvenirs, curios and specimens. These objects are little known outside the constituency of military history and within their current institutions rarely researched in reference to their complex intercultural biographies.

Project details

Project title

Baggage and Belonging: Military Collections and the British Empire, 1750 – 1900

Project active

2017 - 2021

Research theme

Scotland's Material Heritage, Identities and Cultural Contacts

Dr Henrietta Lidchi – Principal Investigator
Head of Research and Collections, National Museum of World Cultures, Leiden, Netherlands
Research Associate and former Keeper of World Cultures, National Museums Scotland

Dr Stuart Allan – Co-Investigator
Keeper of Scottish History and Archaeology, National Museums Scotland

Nicole Hartwell – National Army Museum Research Fellow in Indian Military History, Selwyn College, Cambridge
Research Associate and former Postdoctoral Researcher, Department of Scottish History and Archaeology, National Museums Scotland

Maggie Briggs – Project Administrator
Former Adminstrator, Department of World Cultures, National Museums Scotland

Alastair Massie and Peter Johnston
Former Heads of Research and Academic Access, National Army Museum

Christopher Evans
Executive Director, Cambridge Archaeological Unit, Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge

Clare Harris
Professor of Visual Anthropology, Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford, and the Pitt Rivers Museum 

JD Hill
Research Manager, British Museum 

Charles Kirke
Visiting Fellow, Cranfield University

John Mack
Professor of World Art Studies, Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, University of East Anglia

John M. Mackenzie
Professor Emeritus, University of Lancaster

Alastair Massie
Research Fellow, National Army Museum

Edward M. Spiers
Professor of Strategic Studies, University of Leeds

Louise Tythacott
Pratapaditya Pal Senior Lecturer in Curating and Museology of Asian Art School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London

This interdisciplinary project seeks to reappraise the practices, culture and significance of British military collecting of objects from Africa and India during the period 1750 to 1900.

By tracing collections histories through archival and material evidence the project is investigating the meaning of non-European objects in military organisational culture and their value as material witnesses of encounters between non-European peoples and imperial forces. Furthermore, it reappraises the complex variety of motivations for military collecting. These range, on the one hand, from the deliberate and systematic looting of captured fortresses or cities with which we in the post-colonial world are perhaps now most familiar, to the exchange of gifts and trade between military allies on the other.

The project involves the examination of ethnographic material in the collections of regimental and corps museums across the United Kingdom to develop a greater understanding of the material legacies of Empire.

Henrietta Lidchi, Stuart Allan and Allan Massie examining archives at the National Army Museum

Henrietta Lidchi, Stuart Allan and Alastair Massie examining archives at the National Army Museum.

It has brought together an international group of military historians, anthropologists and material culture specialists to share their knowledge and expertise with corps and regimental museum curators. The project has led to a number of outputs including: conference presentations, journal and magazine articles, a book (Dividing the Spoils: Perspectives on Military Collections and the British Empire, Manchester University Press, 2020), knowledge exchange workshops, an international seminar (held at the National Army Museum in February 2020), and an exhibition at the National War Museum at Edinburgh Castle which opened in November 2020, titled ‘Legacies of Empire’. A second book is currently in preparation.

Alongside our core Project Team the project had an Advisory Board comprising university and museum-based academics working in the fields of cultural and visual anthropology, military history, military anthropology and archaeology.

This multi-disciplinary group convened bi-yearly to provide academic oversight and expert advice and networks for our project outputs.

Email icon Dr Henrietta Lidchi

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