UK museum reviews colonial India and BLM

“As a new design museum, we have no excuse for omitting and misrepresenting this history in our galleries,” says Meredith More, curator at V&A Dundee.


A lesser-known example of unethical practice during the British rule has come to light as part of initiatives to decolonise public spaces and perspectives sparked by the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign when a major museum in Scotland revised texts related to colonial India.


According to the new Victoria & Albert Museum in Dundee, Scotland, ‘Turkey red’ – a colour used to dye cotton and export huge volumes of fabric to India to be used for saris and shawls – was produced using a substance that was against the religious beliefs of consumers, but the fact was not disclosed.

Turkey red’ – a colour used to dye cotton and export huge volumes of fabric to India to be used for saris and shawls – was produced using a substance that was against the religious beliefs of consumers, but the fact was not disclosed. Image credit Victoria & Albert Museum/Hindustan Times

The revelation, as part of decolonising Scotland’s design history, provides another dimension to the economic impact on colonial India of British rule which included crippling India’s textile industry and flooding the Indian market with British cloth.


Examples of the ‘Turkey red’ dye and other colonial items, with revised textual descriptions to reflect the exploitation of enslaved and colonised people around the world, are now on display at V&A Dundee, 90 kilometres from Edinburgh, which is part of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.


Scotland became a centre of cloth dyeing from the 17th century onwards after the Europeans discovered the secret of long-lasting colour of fabrics imported from India and the east. The museum showcases several examples of fabric dyed in ‘Turkey red’ with Indian motifs, with revised description agreed in consultation with experts.

Another item with a revised description is the Scottish Glengarry cap with Indian embroidery.


Original version

‘This cap was probably modelled on a Glengarry bonnet, traditional Scottish headgear that became associated with the dress of Scottish regiments of the British army from the 1850s. Scottish regiments were deployed across India, and in 1848 the Ludhiana Sikh Regiment adopted the Glengarry as its uniform cap. It features Kashmir shawl motifs that are now better known as Paisley patterns’.

Scottish Glengarry bonnet. Image credit Victoria & Albert Museum/Hindustan Times

Revised version

‘The Indian embroidery and buta patterns on this cap, as well as its form resembling a Scottish Glengarry bonnet, suggest it might have been made by a Punjabi craftsperson to sell to Scottish soldiers. At this time Scottish regiments were deployed across India to maintain British rule. Following British victory in the First Anglo-Sikh War, the newly formed Regiment of Ludhiana, which included colonised Indian soldiers, adopted the Glengarry as its uniform cap. Is this a sign of cultural exchange or subjugation?’


Kashmiri shawls with the droplet-shaped motif, which became popular in Britain when they were imported from India during the early 19th century, led to a major imitation industry springing up in the Scottish town of Paisley. The museum presents sketches of the ‘Paisely shawl’ with a revised text.

Original version

‘The 19th-century demand for imported soft woollen Kashmir shawls led Paisley weavers and manufacturers to develop British imitations. These shawls have complex designs that could only be produced on mechanical Jacquard looms controlled by a sequence of punched cards dictating the pattern. Designing and weaving became two separate professions, the design process encompassing several stages from a sketch to a point paper before being woven on the loom’.

Image credit Wikipedia

Revised version

‘This sketch and point paper show how a pattern design was developed before being woven on the loom. The design process had several stages, each managed by a different person with different skills. Once the design was complete, preparatory work for weaving was carried out by winders, warpers, dyers and beamers. Draw-boys or draw-girls worked with the weaver to operate the loom. Finishing was done by clippers, sewers, fringers, washers, pickers and dressers, many of whom were women. By the mid-19th century, French Jacquard looms were introduced, and the Paisley shawl industry became so highly organised that it overtook competitors in Edinburgh and Norwich’.


“As a new design museum, we have no excuse for omitting and misrepresenting this history in our galleries…The first step we’ve taken in this process is to rewrite a number of object labels in our galleries so that they reflect a decolonial and transnational approach to Scotland’s design history,” says Meredith More, curator at V&A Dundee.


“Some of these original labels omitted important details about the colonial context for the objects’ creation, while others unwittingly misrepresented the facts. To re-write them we worked with a group of experts from the Transnational Scotland Network”, she adds.

The decolonisation project is the latest initiative of the £80 million museum housed in a unique design inspired by the eastern cliff edges of Scotland and created by the prominent Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, drawing a large number of visitors this week.

Source: Hindustan Times

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