The East India Company and Natural History Collecting

Written by Rachel Petts, Curatorial Assistant Zoology (part time), Manchester Museum.

Manchester Museum is currently undergoing an exciting transformation, building two new galleries, a South Asia Gallery and the Lee Kai Hung Chinese Culture Gallery. This sparked interest and further research into our natural history collections from Asia.

Manchester Museum has a large collection of 18,000 bird skins; including many specimens from the former British Empire. Further study of the collection has identified over 100 birds linked to the East India Company Museum.

Figure 1: B.2574 Psittacula alexandri fasciata (Statius Muller, 1776) Red-breasted Parakeet, Andaman Islands, South Asia. Presented by the India Museum, London. © Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester

A Brief History of the East India Company Museum

The East India Company was established in 1600 by a royal charter signed by Queen Elizabeth I. It gave the company the monopoly on trade in South Asia for over 250 years. The museum was established in 1798, as an ‘Oriental Repository’ to exhibit the returns of the East India Company’s commerce. It was known as the India Museum, and was housed in the company’s headquarters at India House, Leadenhall Street, London. Company servants were encouraged to expand their knowledge of South Asia in order to advance the company’s commercial and territorial ambitions.

Figure 2: East India House by Thomas Malton the Younger (1748-1804), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Modelled on the Royal Society of London, the Asiatic Society of Bengal was formed in 1784 by a number of East India Company employees in Calcutta. The aim of the society was to carry out research into the history, arts, literature and Natural History of Asia. The Asiatic Society was closely associated with the India Museum in London. Charles Wilkins one of the founding members of the Asiatic Society would go on to propose the formation of the East India Company Museum in London and would become its first curator. The Indian Museum in Calcutta was established in 1814 with the founding collections from the Asiatic Society.

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Digitisation

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Today we have Lukas Large, curatorial trainee with the Birmingham Museums Trust, on digitisation:

The theme of this year’s SPNHC2014 meeting was ‘Historic Collections: Future Resources’. Digitisation was featured as one of the main topics as this is an important way that collections are being made accessible to researchers and new audiences.

The talks described a wide variety of digitisation projects from the enormous Paris Herbarium which ran for 4 years and created images of 5.3 million specimens to Arkansas State Herbarium with 18,000. Many of the projects involved herbarium sheets as these are relatively easy to image but an amazing variety of objects have been digitised including fossils at GB3D Type Fossils, insects and even historic slide collections.

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Extracting the information from specimen labels is an important but potentially expensive and time consuming process so many museums have started to use crowd sourcing to perform tasks such as transcribing specimen labels. Laurence Livermore discussed several successful examples such as Herbaria@home which has been running since 2007 and has a dedicated team of digital volunteers who have contribute 135,000 transcriptions.

These new uses of collections show just how important it is that these objects are properly cared for. Without the museum staff that have looked after these objects, we would not have them to digitise. Without ongoing care, researchers will not be able to study them in the future.

Slides from the talks are available on the iDigBio website as well as detailed descriptions of the protocols and tools used by different projects which are extremely useful for anyone planning their own digitisation project.

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