ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

“Curios and Objects Suitable as Mementos of a Visit to this Interesting Country”: Collecting and Interpreting Miniature Burmese Figures in the Late Nineteenth Century


Nutting Ryan - University of Derby, Derby, United Kingdom


12 – South Asian Collections in European Museums: Examining their acquisition, display, and futures


 This work analyses the interpretation of two sets of ethnographic miniature models purchased by tea merchant, museum founder, and Member of Parliament Frederick Horniman (1835-1906) during his visit to Burma in 1895. Using a biography of objects approach I demonstrate how these models embodied notions of intellectual control over the peoples of Burma in the late nineteenth century.First,  I argue that market forces drove the creation of miniature models such as these that travellers like Horniman purchased which condensed experience into a form primarily designated for display purposes.Next, I show how the Horniman Free Museum interpreted these objects. Highlighting under-utilized primary sources from the museum I demonstrate how, although the museum stressed providing information on foreign cultures, the interpretation of these objects emphasized notions of British colonial control.Finally, based on theories of miniature objects, I argue that the size of these objects forced viewers to examine them more closely than they would human-scale objects. Consequently, visitors gained a sense of superiority over the peoples these miniature models represented.By reviewing the interpretation of these models at three different points in the late nineteenth century this work presents a model for understanding how late nineteenth-century collectors and museums utilized objects such as tourist art to both construct knowledge and implicitly highlight aspects of colonial control.