Visiting Research Fellow Akash Bharadwaj reports on his experiences visiting the University of Brighton in February 2023, sharing his research on museums and regional identity in Bihar state in India.
As a Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Design History, University of Brighton, on 17 February 2023, I presented a paper, A New Museum for Bihar: The Predicament of Loss and Revival, from my ongoing PhD work. The paper explored the new museum’s framing as an ‘international’ museum and how this internationalisation affects the regional identity of Bihar, a state in the east of India. In the discussion after the presentation, I received comments and feedback touching upon themes such as the changing politics of region-making in South Asia, changing economic paradigms and their impact on workers and visitors in the museum, and ethical considerations while conducting research. They have helped refine my questions for this paper and allowed me to think more vigorously about my PhD, which traces how museums have constructed regional histories and identities for Bihar since the 19th century.
As a Visiting Fellow, I also participated in a Centre for Design History workshop on writing about objects led by Professor Jeremy Aynsley from the University of Brighton. Later, I attended a talk by Kamal Badhey, a PhD student, on the Apna Heritage Archive, which includes a collection of photographs tracing the presence of the South Asian diaspora in the UK. Both these sessions were beneficial for thinking about my ongoing work that engages with visual anthropology, the reading of objects and concepts like heritage urbanity. The Visiting Research Fellowship further allowed me to have in-person interactive sessions with the co-Director of the Centre, Dr Claire Wintle, who is on my doctoral committee at Shiv Nadar University, New Delhi. The sessions helped me think through and revise the directions towards which I want to take this dissertation. A central concern that emerged from the discussions was how to bring together the histories of museums and their collections across different times and spaces and ask how they shape the history and identity of Bihar. The sessions were also valuable as they pertained to discussions about future career options in research on museums and finding the right avenues for publishing my research.
Alongside the VRF at the Centre for Design History in Brighton, I also worked in London for a month on a Nehru Trust for India Collections fellowship from Victoria and Albert Museum. These fellowships allowed me to consult archival materials and access collections related to my research questions in different institutions in the UK, including the British Library, National Art Library at V&A, British Museum and Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) at Cambridge University. One of the collections I studied at MAA, Cambridge, was a group of 90 ethnographic objects belonging to different cultural groups, such as Oraons, Santhals and Mundas from the Chotanagpur region (present-day Jharkhand). The objects were donated to the museum by Edward Gait in 1914, right before he became the provincial governor of Bihar and Orissa in 1915. The collections not only link collecting histories in Bihar by administrative scholars like Gait with museums in the UK, but they also open up avenues of thinking about the histories of some of these objects in different exhibitions (for instance, Another India, 8 March 2017- 22 April 2018 curated by Dr Mark Eliott) in contemporary times.
The Visiting Research Fellowship from the Centre for Design History at the University of Brighton has thus made me more aware of museums’ colonial and postcolonial histories and collecting practices in Bihar and their linkages with museums and institutions in the UK. The experience will inform my PhD Collections, Museums, Heritage: Bihar and its Identities in asking how these histories shape the regional identity of Bihar.
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Each year The Centre for Design History welcomes applications from both early-career and established scholars to join us as Visiting Research Fellows. If you are interested in applying, please refer to the guidance on our website.