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.