In 2017 National Museums Scotland was awarded a major grant by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AH/P006752/1) to further examine the rich and diverse material legacy of 19th century British military campaigns. This new interdisciplinary project – Baggage and Belonging: Military Collections and the British Empire – seeks to reappraise the practices, culture and significance of British military collecting of objects from Africa and India during the period 1750 to 1900.
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.
By tracing collections histories through archival and material evidence the project will investigate 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 seeks to reappraise 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 is led by Henrietta Lidchi (Principal Investigator), Stuart Allan (Co-investigator) and Nicole Hartwell (Postdoctoral Researcher), and continues National Museums Scotland’s collaborative partnership with Alastair Massie, Head of Research and Academic Access in the Collections Division at the National Army Museum. It draws on the findings of two earlier projects – Hidden in Plain Sight (supported by the Royal Society of Edinburgh) and Material Encounters (supported by the British Academy and Leverhulme Trust).