ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Decolonising the Database: Deconstructing and Reimagining Imperial Knowledge Production in the British Museum


Kyaping Chukyi - University of Manchester, Manchester, United Kingdom


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


 Amidst growing calls for decolonisation, many museums have typically responded by prioritising the digitisation of their collections, and the inclusion of reflexive and multi-vocal interpretation in their displays. However, neither of these have significantly affected the systems of documentation and classification — seen in the replication of colonial epistemologies in the digital database or in the exclusion of community voices from the official object record (which often relies on art historical scholarship). I will attempt to address these issues using a case study of the British Museum’s Tibetan Buddhist collection – specifically those which were acquired during the 1903-4 British ‘Expedition’ to Tibet. By reconstructing the colonial histories of these objects through provenance research, I uncover how these objects came to be understood and organised as extensions of colonial imaginations which place Tibet as a frontier of the British Raj. However, the violent removal of these objects resulted in many records containing little (if at all) information about their origins beyond the identity of the collectors. Therefore, I also plan to engage with both Buddhist practitioners and the Tibetan diaspora in the UK to embed native knowledge into the museum database and co-produce alternative systems of classification to foster more meaningful connections for the future.