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Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery visit India with ICOM UK – British Council Travel Grant

Holly Morgenroth, Collections Officer at Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery visited India in November 2018 with an ICOM UK – British Council Travel Grant. This is the report from Holly’s visit.

Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM) in and Victoria Memorial Hall (VMH) in Kolkata, India have complementary collections of Company School paintings depicting flora and fauna commissioned by British officials working in India in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  The visit was intended to follow up an earlier research visit to Kolkata by formalising partnerships and creating a forward plan for a collaborative project between RAMM, VMH and University of Exeter (UoE). The visit would also serve to raise the profile of the collaboration within all three organisations.

Dr Rudd, Dr Chatterjee and myself planned to gather information to feed into a funding bid to a research council such as the AHRC.  The proposed project is ambitious and will include researching both collections to provide content for academic research papers, an exhibition that will be shown at RAMM and VMH as well as touring in India and the UK, and an education toolkit to accompany it.   Our visit needed to identify possible lines of research, assess tour venues and feasibility, give us a better understanding of Indian museum-goers and provide us with a thorough understanding of the VMH’s collection of works.

Holly Morgenroth speaking at Victoria Memorial Hall

The MOU signing ceremony between UoE and VMH was an excellent networking opportunity.  Dr Sengupta invited many of his team and I spoke with education, conservation, marketing and curatorial staff about our project.  Also present were Bruce Bucknell’s family (Deputy High Commissioner of the UK in Kolkata), Dr Debanjan Chakrabarty (Director of the British Council in Eastern India) and members of the Indian press.  All were keen to talk about the project and several press releases followed.

I also met interesting people who attended our evening lecture.  Some worked for museums as far afield as the USA and were interested in taking the exhibition on tour and others suggested new lines of research.  We were introduced to experts on Wellesley’s menagerie at Barrackpore – some of the VMH paintings depict his animals. 

I was delighted to meet Soumen Mullick a descendent of Raja Rajendra Mullick who opened India’s first zoo.  We were given a private tour of the Marble Palace’s eclectic art collection and aviary and he alluded to the presence of an archive which is certainly worthy of research.  Dr Prasad, former director at the Central National Herbarium, explained the procedure to undertake further research on the collection and will provide an introduction to their new director when required.

Holly Morgenroth, Joyee Roy, Dr Andrew Rudd and Dr Nandini Chatterjee examining the Fleming collection

We spent two very enjoyable days at the VMH with Joyee Roy, methodically studying the collection and were able to see the original album covers for the first time.  We now have a good understanding of its scope and the people who were potentially involved with its creation.  Our public lecture was very well received and an excellent professional development experience for me.  Together with the MOU signing ceremony it raised awareness of the project within the VMH and UoE and really made the case for the importance of museums in academic research and international collaborations.  The networking opportunities these provided was invaluable.

The opportunity to visit the Marble Palace and its archive was an unexpected pleasure and opened up several new avenues of research.  Unfortunately our trip to the Central National Herbarium at the Botanic Gardens was cut short due to awful traffic, but even a cursory examination of Wallich’s archive turned up some research gems about the exchange of plants and animals in the city.

On the most basic level, whilst the VMH’s Company School drawings are documented to a degree, the online catalogue contains transcription and interpretation errors.  During our research we checked the transcription and corrected where necessary.  They will also benefit from the background research we have conducted into the history of the album and the artists it contains. This improved documentation and context will enhance their engagement with online audiences.  

This project is new territory for RAMM as the museum has not produced or co-produced an international touring exhibition by itself or with UK or international partners before.  It is also very rare for curators to be able to travel abroad for research.  Similarly, this is the first collaborative project for the VMH with an international university and museum.  It is an ambitious project and the next stages are impossible for any of the three organisations to achieve individually.  The partnership we’ve built, contacts we’ve made and information gathered will inform future stages of the project.

Roller. Watercolour, c.1800 by an unknown artist. Fleming collection. By kind permission of the Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata, India

The press coverage associated with the visit and the evening lecture has raised the international profile of both museums and our shared heritage.  It has also provided tangible evidence to support the use of museum collections in academic research and the importance of collaboration with museum staff to unlock the research potential of the collections they care for – we can learn from each other.

The biggest challenge was staying well.  The heat combined with worse than usual air pollution due to Diwali was exhausting and we hadn’t allowed much down time between research trips and evening networking.  My dietary intolerances are also quite difficult to navigate in India.  One day while Dr Rudd and DR Chatterjee attended meetings with the Vice Chancellor at various locations in the city (not very relevant to the project) I took the opportunity to rest, make the most of the reliable wifi and write up our research.

I think advice for international working is quite country specific – each one has its ways of working and societal nuances.  Primarily my advice is about allowing enough time not just to carry out the work but also time to rest in the evenings and recover from jet lag.  In India the heat is prohibitive and exhausting and this should be taken into account.

I am usually someone who likes an itinerary planned down to the hour but in India a degree of flexibility is both beneficial and expected.  Allowing enough time to follow up unexpected avenues of research or even changing work plans is both exciting and fruitful – it’s much harder to chase really interesting leads when you get home from thousands of miles away.

We relied heavily on Dr Sengupta’s network of contacts and he was the key to unlock so many avenues of research for us.  In India being introduced and validated by a mutual contact seems to be crucial when setting up initial meetings with new people.  Without his introduction we would not have had access to Soumen Mullick for example.  My advice to others would be to have a similarly well connected and respected ally. 

From this research we are hoping to submit a funding bid to the AHRC in January 2019 and we are in the final stages of writing the submission before it is scrutinised by UoE’s grant administrators (it has to be the academic partner that applies).  We will know around September 2019 if the bid is successful.  In the meantime we will consider other back-up funders and how to adapt the proposal to meet their criteria – e.g. Wellcome Foundation.  At present the bid will cover the cost of further academic research by Dr Rudd and Dr Chatterjee and a post-doc including travel and subsistence, the production cost of the exhibition including international loans and staff time at RAMM and VMH.

Staff from RAMM, VMH and UoE and invited guests view works from the Fleming collection after the memorandum of understanding signing ceremony

I will keep in touch with contacts made as a result of the press releases and during the trip. The press releases generated considerable attention from experts and interested parties in the UK and India.   I have also begun to research the paper the RAMM paintings are on.  Many have watermarks and I am trying to discover the paper manufacturers and whether there are any correlations between the paper and the subject matter or artist.  I have ordered a wafer thin light sheet to help study them.

From this trip we have developed an international network of passionate and enthusiastic individuals and organisations with a shared vision of future collaboration.  Participation in this project has helped me gain a place on the Clore Leadership Pulse training programme which will help me develop my confidence and leadership skills – skills I will bring to the project as it continues.

“This project is a wonderful reflection of Exeter’s approach: collaborative, outward looking, building on the past while looking to the future. Two of Exeter’s great institutions – RAMM and the University of Exeter – have forged new links with Bengal to increase our knowledge and understanding of our common heritage. We are delighted that the art and the new findings can be shared through exhibitions, academic forum, loans and online.” 

Rachel Sutton, Lead Councilor for Economy and Culture for Exeter City Council 

ICOM UK