As part of my Arts and Humanities Research funded early career fellowship, I am working with colleagues at the Bristol Museum to explore the items in their collections that came from Burma. Just before Christmas, I was invited to help with the photographing of some of the objects held in their East Asian Art and Ethnographic collections.
There is a startling range of objects for us to study. In the photograph above, I am surrounded by the various parts of an elaborate silver centerpiece. Grand decorative items like this were made in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries for British dining tables by skilled Burmese craftsmen—in this case by Aung Myat, an award-winning silversmith from Thayetmyo. The elaborate design incorporates the Burmese signs of the zodiac, elephants, women being eaten by tigers, and Chinthe (a mythical lion-like creature), but the form is high Victorian. A similar piece of silverware, also from the late-nineteenth century, cost two thousand rupees at the time. This was roughly the equivalent of the price of a working elephant.
At the other end of the spectrum from over-the-top Victorian table decorations is this small glazed earthenware turtle. This is one of the only pieces of Burmese green-glazed earthenware to remain from what was once a bigger collection held by the Museum. It is an endearing object, but it reminds me of the disappearance of actual turtles in the Irrawaddy delta brought about by environmental change and the farming of turtle eggs during the colonial period.
The project will also look at the natural history collections and bring the Burmese animal specimens held there together with these man-made artifacts—although taxidermy certainly blurs this boundary—many of which (like the ones above) contain representations of animal life. This will make it possible to explore the different relationships that the Burmese and the British had with wildlife during the colonial period, when the vast majority of these items were acquired. By the end of the summer some of the artifacts from Burma that now reside in the Bristol Museum will be brought together in an online exhibition titled ‘Buddhas and Bird-skins: Bringing Burma to Bristol in the Age of Empire’. So, watch this space…