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Decolonising Museums: South-Asian Perspectives


This study adopts an osmotic ethnography in order to decolonise the museum as an intellectual institution that was born in the West and informed by a logic of command (arkheion). As in the biological process of osmosis, characterised by an equilibrium between the inner and the outer that shapes its own distinctiveness through its symbiosis, the museum constitutes itself as a space intertwined with external reality. This is particularly true in the case of South Asian museum artefacts: because of the concept of darśan (the sensuous relationship between the worshipper and the deity's material embodiment) curators have faced the challenge of coming to terms with visitors’ responses, from colonial to post-colonial times. A direct consequence of this challenge is represented by the reconstructions of religious spaces—shrines, altars, temples—that should evoke the so-called “original context” and be in consonance with local forms of material engagement.

By adopting eco-phenomenology as its methodological framework, this article examines colonial sources, in particular the works of Thomas Hendley (1847–1917) and Fanny Parks (1794–1875), and compares them to the ethnographic fieldwork undertaken by the author at the Oriental Museum of the University of Durham in November 2014, as part of doctoral research.

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1 Dewey, J., Art as Experience (New York, 1980 [1934]); Merleau-Ponty, M., Phenomenology of Perception (London, 2002 [1945]).

2 Abrams, M. H., “Kant and the Theology of Art”, Notre Dame English Journal, 13, 3 (1981), pp. 75106; Abrams, M. H., “Art-as-Such: The Sociology of Modern Aesthetics”, Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 38, 6 (1985), pp. 833.

3 Casey, E. S., The World at a Glance (Bloomington, IN, 2007), p. 35.

4 Abram, D., The Spell of the Sensuous. Perception and Language in a More-Than-HumanWorld (New York, 1996). (Abram's italics)

5 Gell, A., Art and Agency. An Anthropological Theory (Oxford, 1998).

6 Pattison, S., Seeing Things. Deepening Relations with Visual Artefacts (London, 2007).

7 For an up-dated résumé of the debate on Gell's paradigm of agency, see Chua, L. and Elliott, M. (eds), Distributed Objects. Meaning and Mattering After Alfred Gell (New York, 2015).

8 Ingold, T., The Perception of the Environment. Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill (London, 2000).

9 Gell, Art and Agency.

10 Ingold, T. (ed.), Redrawing Anthropology. Materials, Movements, Lines (Farnham, 2011); Pandian, A., Reel World. An Anthropology of Creation (Durham, NC, 2015).

11 Toren, C., “Becoming a Christian in Fiji: An Ethnographic Study of Ontogeny”, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 10 (2003), pp. 709727; Toren, C., “Imagining the World that Warrants Our Mind. The Revelation of Ontogeny”, Cambridge Anthropology, 30, 1 (2012), pp. 6479.

12 Hodder, I., Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things (Hoboken, NJ, 2012).

13 Toren, C., “Comparison and Ontogeny”, in Anthropology, by Comparison, (eds) Gingrich, A. and Fox, R. G. (London, 2002), pp. 187203, here p. 193. (Toren's emphasis)

14 Causey, A., Drawn to See. Drawing as an Ethnographic Method (Toronto, 2017); Ingold, T., Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture (London, 2013).

15 Ingold, Making; Ingold, T. and Hallam, E. (eds), Making and Growing. Anthropological Studies of Organisms and Artefacts (London, 2014).

16 Paine, C., Religious Objects in Museums: Private Lives and Public Duties (London, 2013).

17 Durham, J., “Entering the Visual Mandala: Transformative Environments in Hybrid Spaces”, in Sacred Objects in Secular Spaces. Exhibiting Asian Religions in Museums, (ed.) Sullivan, B. M. (London, 2015), pp. 8093, here p. 81.

18 Derrida, J., Archive Fever. A Freudian Repression (Chicago, 1995).

19 Ibid., p. 2.

20 Ibid., p. 3.

21 Fleming, B. J. and Mann, R., “Introduction: Material Culture and Religious Studies”, in Material Culture and Asian Religions: Text, Image, Object, (eds) Fleming, B. J. and Mann, R. (London, 2014), pp. 120.

22 S. T. Bhatti, “Exhibiting and Viewing Culture, Curiosities and the Nation at the Lahore Museum”, PhD thesis, University College London, 2005, p. 78.

23 Wiener, M. J., “Magic, (Colonial) Science and Science Studies”, Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale, 21, 4 (2013), pp. 492509, here p. 494.

24 Elliott, M., “Side Effects: Looking, Touching, and Interacting in the India Museum, Kolkata”, Journal of Museum Ethnography, 18 (2006), pp. 6375; Bhatti, S. T., Translating Museums. A Counterhistory of South Asian Museology (Walnut Creek, CA, 2012).

25 Bhatti, “Exhibiting and Viewing Culture, Curiosities and the Nation”, p. 120.

26 S. Berns, “Sacred Entanglements: Studying Interactions Between Visitors, Objects and Religion in the Museum”, PhD thesis, University of Kent, 2015; Sullivan, B. M., Sacred Objects in Secular Spaces. Exhibiting Asian Religions in Museums (London, 2015).

27 Elliott, “Side Effects”, p. 71.

28 M. Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible (Evanston 1968 [1964]); Pinney, C., “Photos of the Gods”. The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India (London, 2004), p. 194.

29 Merleau-Ponty, The Visible, p. 146.

30 The debate on darśan is particularly controversial, as some scholars argue that it is not only a visual interaction—see Pinard, S., “A Taste of India: On the Role of Gustation in the Hindu Sensorium”, in The Variety of Sensory Experience: A Sourcebook in the Anthropology of the Senses, (ed.) Howes, D. (Toronto, 1991) pp. 221230; Cort, J. E., “Situating Darśan: Seeing the Digambar Jina Icon in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century North India”, International Journal of Hindu Studies, 16, 1 (2012), pp. 156; and McHugh, J., “Seeing Scents: Methodological Reflections on the Intersensory Perception of Aromatics in South Asian Religions”, History of Religions, 51, 2 (2011), pp. 156177—which is what Eck would say: Eck, D., Darśan: Seeing the Divine Image in India (New York, NY, 1998). In this article I adopt Babb's own view of the concept: Babb, L. A., “Glancing: Visual Interaction in Hinduism”, Journal of Anthropological Research, 37, 4 (1981), pp. 387401.

31 Babb, “Glancing”, p. 396.

32 Pinney, “Photos of the Gods”, p. 194.

33 Ibid., pp. 190–191.

34 Alpers, S., “The Museum as a Way of Seeing”, in Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, (eds) Karp, I. and Lavine, S. D. (Washington, DC, 1991), pp. 2532.

35 Davis, R. H., Lives of Indian Images (Princeton, NJ, 1997), p. 50.

36 Ibid.

37 Jain, K., Gods in the Bazar. The Economics of Indian Calendar Art (Durham, 2007), pp. 187, 347.

38 Pandian, Reel World.

39 Jain, Gods in the Bazar; Pinney, “Photos of the Gods”.

40 Pinney, C., “Indian Magical Realism: Notes on Popular Visual Culture”, in Subaltern Studies X: Writings on South Asian History and Society, (eds) Bhadra, G., Prakash, G. and Tharu, S. (New Delhi, 1999), pp. 201233, here p. 211. In this regard, Pinney talks about “Indian magical realism”, in contrast with Western rationality and in similar to South-American magical realism.

41 Bhatti, Translating Museums, p. 221.

42 Elliott, “Side Effects”; Robson, J., “Faith in Museums: On the Confluence of Museums and Religious Sites in Asia”, Publications of the Modern Language Association, 125, 1 (2010), pp. 121128.

43 Bhatti, Translating Museums, p. 154.

44 Mathur, S. and Singh, K., “Reincarnations of the Museum: The Museum in an Age of Religious Revivalism”, in Asian Art History in the Twenty-first Century, (ed.) Desai, V.N. (Clark Studies in the Visual Arts 2007).

45 Robson, “Faith in Museums”.

46 Guha-Thakurta, T., Monuments, Objects, Histories: Institutions of Art in Colonial and Postcolonial India (New Delhi, 2004), pp. 1833, 76.

47 Due to limited space, I do not refer to the attempts of scientists and museum curators to emulate Western museums nor to their contestations of vernacular appropriations of exhibitive spaces. The ambiguity between a Latourian purification (Latour, B., We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, MA, 1993)) and the need to resort to corpothetics in order to be understood by the masses can be found in: Prakash, G., Science and the Imagination of Modern India (Princeton, NJ, 1999).

48 Hendley, T., “Indian Museums”, The Journal of Indian Art and Industry 16 (1914), pp. 3369. Thomas Hendley (1847–1917) was a commissioner and museum official in Jeypore, as well as a member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (Hoffenberg, P. H., An Empire on Display. English, Indian, and Australian Exhibitions from the Crystal Palace to the Great War (Berkeley, CA, 2001), p. 230). Frances Susannah Archer or Fanny Parks, the second daughter of Captain William Archer and wife of Charles Crawford Parks, writer of the East India Company as well as Collector of Customs ( J. Goldsworthy, “Fanny Parks (1794–1875): Her ‘Grand Moving Diorama of Hindostan’, her Museum, and her Cabinet of Curiosities”, Blog post, retrieved from: (2014), [accessed 2 May 2018], pp. 1–23, p. 3), lived for almost 23 years in India, where her husband was Collector of Customs, first in Kolkata and subsequently in Allahabad (Ibid., p. 4). After her return to England, she published an account of her travels in India based in her journals and letters to her mother (Ibid., p. 7). This was the starting point for Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque, during four-and-twenty years residence in the East: with Revelations of Life in the Zenana (London, P. Richardson, 1850). The book reflects the fragmentary and random style of the journal, with a continuous shift from the present to the past tense.

49 In this regarrd, Appadurai and Breckenridge have defined mela as “exhibition-cum-sale”: Appadurai, A. and Breckenridge, C. A., “Museums are Good to Think: Heritage on View in India”, in Representing the Nation: A Reader–Histories, Heritage and Museums, (ed.) Breckenridge, C. A. (London, 1999), pp. 404420, p. 408.

50 Bhatti, Translating Museums, pp. 216–217.

51 Hendley, “Indian Museums”, pp. 39–40.

52 Mitter, P., Much Maligned Monsters: A History of European Reaction to Indian Art (Oxford, 1977).

53 Parks, Wanderings of a Pilgrim, pp. 256–257.

54 Ibid., p. 254.

55 I am using the notion as employed by Casey, The World at a Glance.

56 Hendley, “Indian Museums”, p. 39.

57 Ibid., p. 34.

58 Guha-Thakurta, Monuments; Prakash, Another Reason; Bhatti, Translating Museums; Elliott, “Side Effects”.

59 Hendley, “Indian Museums”, pp. 33–34.

60 Ibid., p. 39.

61 Hendley, “Indian Museums”, p. 34, quoted in Bhatti, Translating Museums, p. 189.

62 See, for instance, Hoffenberg, An Empire on Display, p. 230.

63 E. Martin, “Charles Bell's Collection of ‘Curios’: Negotiating Tibetan Material Culture on the Anglo-Tibetan Borderlands (1900–1945)”, PhD thesis, School of Oriental and African Studies University of London, 2014, p. 145.

64 Breckenridge, C. A., “The Aesthetics and Politics of Colonial Collecting: India at World Fares”, Society for Comparative Study of Society and History, 31, 2 (1989), pp. 195216.

65 Bhatti, Translating Museums.

66 Leask, N., Curiosity and the Aesthetics of Travel Writing 1770–1840 (Oxford, 2002), p. 30.

67 Paine, Religious Objects in Museums; Parks, Wanderings of a Pilgrim, p. 240.

68 F. Parks, Grand Moving Diorama of Hindostān, Displaying the Scenery of the Hoogly, the Bhāgirathi and the Ganges, from Fort William, Bengal, to Gangoutrī (London, 1851 c.a.), Retrieved from:, [accessed 2 May 2018].

69 “While panoramas were essentially very large, realistic, paintings of a scene, dioramas, which also used painted backdrops, introduced a three-dimensional element to the viewing experience. Daguerre's diorama … first shown in Paris in 1822, was brought to London in 1823 and erected in a special building constructed in Regent's Park at a cost of £10,000”: Goldsworthy, “Fanny Parks”, p. 9.

70 Parks, Wanderings of a Pilgrim; ibid.

71 Parks, Wanderings of a Pilgrim, p. 162.

72 Ibid., p. 496.

73 Parks, Grand Moving Diorama of Hindostān

74 Parks, Wanderings of a Pilgrim, pp. viii-ix.

75 Morgan, D., “The Ecology of Images. Seeing and the Study of Religion”, Religion and Society: Advances in Research, 5 (2014), pp. 83105.

76 Martin, “Charles Bell's Collection”.

77 Lanz, S., “Assembling Global Prayers in the City: An Attempt to Repopulate Urban Theory with Religion”, in Global Prayers. Contemporary Manifestations of the Religious in the City, (eds) Becker, J., Klingan, K., Lanz, S. and Wildner, K. (Zurich, 2014), pp. 1747.

78 Berns, “Sacred Entanglements”.

79 Ibid., p. 10.

80 See, for instance, Ingold, T., “When ANT meets SPIDER: Social Theory for Anthropods”, in Material Agency. Towards a Non-Anthropocentric Approach, (eds) Knappett, C. and Malafouris, L. (Berlin, 2008), pp. 209215.

81 Hodder, Entangled; Morgan, “The Ecology of Images”.

82 Ingold, “When ANT meets SPIDER”, p. 211.

83 Interview with the curator of the Oriental Museum, University of Durham.

84 The Huntington Archive of Buddhist and Asian Art:, [accessed 2 May 2018].

85 Huyler, S. P., Meeting God. Elements of Hindu Devotion (New Haven, CT, 1999).

86 Ibid., p. 56.

87 Bean, S., “Puja, Expressions of Hindu Devotion”, Museum Anthropology, 21, 3 (1997), pp. 2932; here p. 30.

88 This is now available online at:, [accessed 11 May 2018].

89 T. Ingold, “Three in One: On Dissolving the Distinctions between Body, Mind and Culture”, Manuscript, Department of Anthropology, University of Manchester, 1999.

90 Davis, Lives of Indian Images, p. 50.

92 Karapanagiotis, N., “Cyber Forms, Worshippable Forms: Hindu Devotional Viewpoints on the Ontology of Cyber-Gods and -Goddesses”, International Journal of Hindu Studies, 17, 1 (2013), pp. 5782.

93 Cf. Gonda, J., Eye and Gaze in the Veda (Amsterdam, 1969); Tripathi, G. C., “The Daily Puja Ceremony of the Jagannātha Temple and its Special Features”, in The Cult of Jagganath and the Regional Tradition of Orissa, (eds) Eschmann, A., Kulke, H. and Tripathi, G. C. (New Delhi, 1978), pp. 285307; MacKenzie, B. C., “Purāna as Scripture: From Sound to Image of the Holy Word in the Hindu Tradition”, History of Religions, 26, 1 (1986), pp. 6886.

95 Ibid.

96 Sullivan, Sacred Objects.

97 Cf. Bentor, Y., “The Content of Stūpas and Images and the Indo-Tibetan Concept of Relics”, The Tibet Journal, 28, 1/2 (2003), pp. 2148; Diemberger, H., Elliott, M., and Clemente, M. (eds), Buddha's Word. The Life of Books in Tibet and Beyond (Cambridge, 2014).

98 Berns, “Sacred Entanglements”.

99 Latour, B., Pandora”s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (Cambridge, MA, 1999).

100 Bhatti, Translating Museums.

101 L. Evans and J. Blair, Listening to Self: An Appeal for Autoethnography in Art Museum Education”, Blog post, 8 February 2016, retrieved from, [accessed 23 May 2018].

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