A guest post from Rachel Webster, Curator of Botany, and David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Earth Sciences, on exploring the stores with the South Asia Gallery Collective.
At the end of June the South Asia Gallery collective paid a visit to look at some of the South Asia-related stories waiting to be told in the geology and botany collections. In geology, our collections of rocks, minerals and fossils tell of mapping the colonial power of the British Empire, the formation of the Himalayas and ancient life and environments.
We started by looking at out piece of Mount Everest, which is great to handle as it feels a very tangible link to the mountain and the geological power unleashed by the building of the Himalayas. After looking at some 2.5 million year old elephants fossils from the Sivillak Hills, we looked at some of the world’s finest diamonds. Unfortunately only replicas, but probably the nearest most people will come to handling them.
Apart from being exciting to see, these are a really interesting angle our colonial past and many originally come from South Asia. It was great to spark conversations about the ancient history of South Asia and how these stories might fit into the new gallery and activities.
In the herbarium, we looked at examples of plants which can tell stories of South Asia. Specimens of tea and cotton collected between c.1850-1900 highlight the trade in commodities from South Asia during the British Empire. We looked at herbarium sheets with pressed rhododendron branches collected in the Himalayas by Joseph Hooker and Thomas Thompson. Many garden plants familiar in British gardens were originally collected from the Himalayas and brought back to the UK by plant hunters.
As well as specimens of real plants, we also looked at some examples of botanical illustrations in the Museum’s collections. In particular, some prints of Indian plants by East India Company Surgeon and botanist, William Roxburgh sparked discussions about exchanges of knowledge and technique between British and Indian artists.