ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Reading Orientalism at the Master’s House —Tara at the British Museum as a Site of (Post)Colonial Anxiety


Wanniarachchi Senel - London School of Economics and Political Science, Gender Studies, London, United Kingdom


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


 This paper traces the ‘roots & routes’ of the statue of Tara which is a centrepiece of the South Asia Gallery of the British Museum.  When Tara was initially ‘gifted’ to the Museum in 1830, it was considered ‘too obscene’ to be put on display and was hidden in a discreet chamber of the Museum for obscene artefacts titled the Secretum. Whilst the display of elements of the material culture of colonised subjects such as Tara in European museums, was crucial for the construction of a purported civilisational ‘difference’ between the White coloniser and their colonised subjects, such displays also gave rise to anxieties on contamination driven by fears that being exposed to and subsequently tempted by these ‘backward’ cultures would result in a breakdown of social order in white established society. How did these two realities exist? On the one hand, we know that colonialism was accompanied by a propagandist orientalist project which relied on the production of a kind difference between the coloniser and colonised. On the other hand, exposing White Europeans to such ‘backward’ cultures gave rise to anxieties on degeneracy which could challenge this very ‘difference’ upon which colonialism was predicated on. In this paper, I argue that considering Tara’s hi(story) allows us to complicate our existing theorizations on the relationship between orientalism, colonialism, museumization and moral panics on degeneration, contamination and social decadence.