Episode 80

80. British Museum Curator Sushma Jansari Shares Stories and Experiments of Decolonising Museums

Your Hosts

About this Episode

The British Museum’s South Asia Collection is full of Indian objects. Dr. Sushma Jansari, Tabor Foundation Curator of South Asia at the British Museum, does not want visitors to overlook the violence of how these objects were brought to the UK to be held in a museum.

So for the 2017 renovation of the South Asia Collection, Jansari, who is the first curator of Indian descent of this collection, made sure to create unexpected moments in the gallery. She highlighted artifacts bequeathed to the museum by South Asian collectors and presented photographs of a modern Jain Temple in Leicester, where she’s from.

In this episode, Jansari talks about giving visitors the tools to think about the colonial interest in items in the collection, why she started her excellent podcast, The Wonder House, and how not to let the decolonization movement’s momentum evaporate.

Topics and Links

Museum Archipelago is a tiny show guiding you through the rocky landscape of museums. Subscribe to the podcast via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, or even email to never miss an episode.

Sponsor: Pigeon by SRISYS 🐦

This episode of Museum Archipelago is brought to you by SRISYS Inc - an innovative IT Apps Development Company with its Smart Products like Project Eagle - an agile messaging platform and PIGEON - a real-time, intelligent platform that uncovers the power of wayfinding for your museum, enabling your visitors to maximize their day at your venue.

Using SRISYS's Pigeon, the museum's management can gather real-time data for managing space effectively about visitors while improving their ROI through marketing automation. Visitors can navigate the maze of a museum with ease, conduct automated and personalized tours based on their interest, RSVP for events, and get more information about the exhibits in front of them.

Pigeon is a flexible platform and can be customized to work for your museum. And because the platform takes advantage of low-cost Beacon technology, the app works offline as well! This means less data transmission costs for the museum and bigger savings for visitors when using this app outside their home territory. Click here find out how Pigeon can help your museum.


Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 80. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear and the only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.


There’s a way to look at history that focuses on the events themselves.

And then there’s a way to look at history that focuses on the fallout.

In the 4th century B.C.E., Seleucus who was one of Alexander the Great’s successors, and Chandragupta, who was the first Mauryan emperor in Northern India, met for the first time by the banks of the river Indus, and they had some kind of military encounter.

What kind of military encounter? Well we don’t really know. What we do know is that, following the encounter, Greek ambassador Megasthenes was sent to the Indian interior for the first time.

Sushma Jansari: And he wrote an ethnography called the Indica, and it sort of described India for a Greek audience, based on, personal observation, but also the, you know, there's lots of strange storytelling as well and it, this particular text has sort of formed the, the foundation of Western knowledge of India for generations. And you can just imagine that, soldiers, British soldiers in the 19th century took translations of this particular text with them to the Northwest of India when they were exploring. So it's had a very long life, and it's a particular moment that that continues to resonate.

This is Dr. Sushma Jansari, Tabor Foundation Curator of South Asia at the British Museum.

Sushma Jansari: Hello, I'm Dr. Sushma Jansari. I'm the Tabor Foundation Curator of South Asia at the British museum, and when I'm not at work, I work on my podcast, which is very much a passion project, and this is called The Wonder House.

We’ll get to the Wonder House in a minute, because it’s an excellent podcast, but first, as a doctorate at the University College London, Jansari studied this ancient encounter, of which only Greek descriptions survive.

Sushma Jansari: that moment of meeting and connection has been completely transformed. It was transformed during the colonial period by British and Indian scholars. And you have British scholars saying, Oh, you know, so, because once ward, and he defeated this Indian general, whereas the Indian scholars wrote the complete opposite. Their take was that Chandragupta got to defeat this incoming European and he became a great leader and ruler.

So actually, because of this uncertainty, I think it tells us a lot about the time we live in right now and how moments have been transformed in the past.

What we can study is the fallout -- how people interpret these historic events and how that reflects on the moment they are living in now. And of course, what better way to see -- in the form of a building -- how people interpret historic events than a museum itself.

Sushma Jansari: I think this is why the whole idea of decolonizing museums and collections is so important because I think up till now we've all been complicit and telling very partial stories, under the guise of trying to be neutral. And as we know, that neutrality is quite problematic and it tells a very, very, partial truth or partial version of a story.

Museums are a great way to see what historic events meant to the museum builders, and I can think of no clearer example than the British Museum.

Sushma Jansari: We have, you know, really incredible exhibitions on say, you know, when you're thinking of ancient South Asia, they're often on Buddhism or Hinduism or Jainism. So they have a very close religious focus. But what they don't tend to address, very rarely that I've ever seen anyway, is how did those collections arrive here? What was the colonial interest in that material and how has it been interpreted? How has it been presented? And also why, why in those particular ways? How, how has that changed over the last, you know, century or so?

It's too easy to present, so-called neutral view of the ancient past and of ancient religions. But I don't think that's particularly ethical. I think if you’re going to be doing that, you need to be telling that fuller story.

In episode 39 of this show, we examined Hans Sloane and the origins of the British Museum. Funded in large part by his marriage into the enslaving plantocracy of Jamaica and the Atlantic slave trade, and aided by Britain’s rising colonial power and global reach, Sloane assembled an encyclopedic collection of specimens and objects from all around the world that became the bases for the world’s first public museum, The British Museum, a place where anybody could freely enter to see the glory of the British Empire.

Sushma Jansari: I think empire enfuses pretty much every aspect of life in the U.K., whether we're all aware of it or not, you know, whether it's the names of the streets, we walked down, the, the museums that were founded, the collections, they are hold the structures we still all inhabit. When we actually look around at the museums, most of the museums, I'd say in the U.K., they hold the contents of empire, you know, objects that were collected around the world by colonial officials, by soldiers, by sailors, people working abroad.

You can't disentangle the two, when you are telling a story, you need to be honest and tell the whole story, or at least as much of it as you can possibly share. Because otherwise you're telling a very, very partial one that often overlooks the violence of an object's collection. and the situation and circumstances it was created, taken, purchased and brought here to the U.K. to be held in a museum.

Today, Jansari is the first curator of Indian descent of the South Asia Collection at the British Museum.

Sushma Jansari: In the past, truth be told, I didn't really think about it very much. I think it's only when I look at my curatorial practice and how I approach my role, the collections, who I want to work with and how I realized that actually there is a difference between what I do and what other people, you know, in a whole range of institutions bring to their role and at first I was really uncomfortable about that. I thought, my goodness, you know, is it just because of who I am and what I am? What about, you know, my academic side, and you know, all of that and my skills and knowledge, but actually I think it's. My ability to do my job is it's somehow richer. I bring a slightly different perspective to what I do and how I do it.

The South Asia Collection at the British Museum is so enormous that it can capture the sweep of history of South Asia, from the Paleolithic period to the present day. The gallery reopened in 2017 and before that, it was last refurbished in 1992.

Sushma Jansari: It just happens to be the largest gallery in the museum, so, Hey, no pressure. and I. Yeah, exactly. And everyone's looking, you know, the, so, you know, try not to fail on your first go.

So it was, it was really tricky. and so we started by thinking, well, who actually comes to the museum and does, I mentioned over 70% of our audience comes from outside the U.K.. And if those people, a huge proportion, they. They're not very well versed in the history, cultures and religions of South Asia, so how would you present your collections in a way that shares this really incredible part of the world with people who don't know a great deal about it? And so we, decided to have a chronic thematic kind of approach. So we started with the paleolithic, which is about one and a half million years ago, and ended at the present day.

The encyclopedic collections at the museum permits us to be able to do something like that. And as part of that, I sort of worked on the ancient to medieval sections, which is, the, the, the collections I cover along with, the bulk of the anthropological collections and also the textiles. It's got a mammoth collection that I look after.

But as part of that, I was very keen to introduce moments where, you know, slightly unexpected stories and people were presented. So for example, in the main aisle, you walk down, one of the first sculptures you encounter is the Mathura lion capital, which dates about the first century A.D.

And it was actually excavated and request to the museum by a South Asian collector, Bhagwan Lal Indraji. And I put a portrait of him on that, on the label as well as a little bit of text explaining it. Cause I wanted people to be confronted by South Asians in the South Asia gallery. It's not enough to, you know, display “their” culture and “their” collections and “their” history. I think it has to be a shared enterprise and, you know, in another section, for example, in the Jainism in Western India, the medieval section, I included photographs of the Jain temple from Leicester, which is where I'm from in the U.K..

I wanted to show that the sculptures on display, they are just as much part of British culture, as it was, you know, back then in the medieval period, it's not just some alien religion and alien culture. It's, it's our shared culture now. I think it's really important to sort of connect the dots. So you do share this, sort of broad sweep of history and culture, but then you want to also intersperse it with these other really important moments linking, you know, who and what you might see around you as you're going about your everyday life in the U.K. and linking it with, with the past as well.

I asked Jansari if she’s noticed changes in who visits the gallery and how much time they spend there since the update.

Sushma Jansari: I'm very interested in who's there, how they engage with different displays, how I can sort of tweak them to make them more engaging. And I have definitely noticed that there are more, South Asians in the gallery space, the South Asia section. This is a really tricky one because, although you hope that a museum is for everybody. The reality is that as you say, a lot of people don't feel that the museum is for them and it's, it's, it's, it's terrible because obviously the museum is for everybody, but once again, when you have very neutral displays and people aren't addressed. People aren't consulted, you aren't working with members of the community. I think it's understandable why they might feel somehow excluded from these spaces. And you know, we've all had moments where we've been chatting to people and they assume that a museum is not for them.

It's somehow seen as a very different othering space. And when you see the workforce inside the museum, also predominantly white, and. There are very few members of, you know, black and minority ethnic staff in the museums. Once again, what sort of message are you trying to share with everybody else?

You're saying, Hey, come come to our museum, but you got work here. You know how, how. How do you change that? And I think it's not just one or two tweaks. I think it's a fundamental reimagining of what exactly a museum is and who exactly this museum is for and how do those parts come together? I'm not sure that we yet have those answers, but what I think is really, really important is that we start having these conversations and we start experimenting.

And this is one of the reasons why Jansari started the Wonder House podcast. The podcast, which is completely independent of the British Museum, is a way for Jansari to share the most innovative contemporary approaches to decolonization.

Sushma Jansari: And so I got in touch with some people whose work I really respect, and I asked them if they were willing to talk about their work, what they learned, what they, what they thought didn't work quite so well, and share their stories and experiments with decolonizing so that everybody could have a chance to listen in on a friendly conversation. See what aspects might work for them, their collections, their institutions, and sort of feel supported and encouraged to experiment.

What I love about The Wonder House is being able to listen in on these conversations that might not be happening in museums themselves, but are happening at coffee houses and pubs nearby. And the show explores the scale too -- you hear Jansari, who works at one of the largest institutions in the world in conversation with people who might be their museum’s only curator.

Sushma Jansari: Because I think I really worry that the decolonize that the decolonizing museums, sort of incredible energy that it has right now. It's quite easy for that to evaporate. Every single movement has its moment, and unless we embed this kind of, knowledge and approaches, it's going to evaporate and not just the collections, but also, you know, the simple fact that you know, many of us who work in museums, you're often one of the only one or two. black and minority ethnic people in an entire institution. That's not easy.

Jansari studies the ancient world, but now she is at the forefront of modern museum interpretation, printing not just the event, but also how the event rippled through history.

Remember the story about Seleucus, and Chandragupta from the beginning of the episode?

Sushma Jansari: And in fact, that Indian interpretation of that moment has won out. And actually if you read, historical novels, modern comics, if you watch, Indian films and Indian TV series, that's exactly the vision of Chandragupta that we have now.

It's evolving all the time. you know, ideas are being shaped and reshaped, almost day by day at the moment. And I think that's really exciting.


Sushma Jansari: I remember one time I saw somebody just from the corner of my eye looking, really, it looks as if they're really focusing close on a particular textile. I thought, Oh my God, what is it? Know what's going on? So I wandered over and actually she had a compact out. I was applying her lipstick, so it's always good. You know, you assume you created this amazing display, but you know what?