Featured Empires

Lord Curzon, the National Trust, and the Eastern Museum

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Lord Curzon is not accurately represented on the National Trust website, and the historic arrangement of the Eastern Museum is under threat. Kedleston Hall received coverage in the ‘Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery.’ Now, as part of the ‘Colonial Countryside’ project, descriptions of objects at Kedleston Hall, including items in the Eastern Museum, have been changed.

Unfortunately, these changes reflect an assessment of the merits of the collection at Kedleston Hall that completely fails either to take account of the context in which the collection was formed or of its significance as an historic display. The descriptions also lapse into a discussion of the merits of empire in general, which the National Trust is not well equipped to do and does not aid the task of preserving heritage.

The Interim Report, for example, notes that the 4th Baron Scarsdale was married to the granddaughter of the owner of plantations in Dominica and Tobago but presents no evidence that any of the money derived from these plantations found its way to Kedleston. Indeed, the Baroness Scarsdale in question was actually born after slavery was abolished.

The report continues:

George Nathaniel Curzon,1st Viscount Scarsdale (1859–1925), served as Under-Secretary of State for India in 1891 and Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905. During his tenure, he made many reforms, but he opposed demands from Indian nationalists for greater participation in government. The aid offered by Curzon’s administration during the famine of 1899 and 1900 was limited. In 1903, Curzon supported the British invasion of Tibet under Francis Younghusband (1863–1942), and in 1905 he oversaw the partition of Bengal. On his return from India he was appointed Foreign Secretary, a position he held from 1919 until 1924.

Curzon’s passion for building conservation was demonstrated in the restoration of the Taj Mahal. He amassed a private collection gathered from across China and southern and western Asia. The collection was originally loaned to the Victoria and Albert Museum, but it was arranged as the Eastern Museum at Kedleston in 1925 and is currently the subject of a re-presentation and interpretation project.

This is a factual account, but it is also selective and omits much that is important including:

  • Curzon’s hereditary title was 5th Baron Scarsdale; his senior title was 1st Earl Curzon (and eventually 1st Marquess Curzon). He was never known as Viscount Scarsdale. Before becoming Viceroy of India he was also Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs.
  • In Lord Curzon’s time the Indian nationalist movement was very small. It did not become a mass movement until long after he left India.
  • As Viceroy he punished British regiments guilty of mistreating Indians, and he did this in the face of fierce opposition. The journalist Valentine Chirol said of him that ‘no-one ever challenged unpopularity among his own people so fearlessly as [Curzon] did in his endeavours to secure even justice for Indians against Europeans.’ He also established a nature reserve which was crucial for preserving India’s one-horned rhinoceros.
  • His response to the famine was extensive, if not unlimited, including the provision of food for millions of people and the introduction of irrigation schemes. In areas without railways, food was transported by cattle, a slow and difficult process.
  • He restored many buildings apart from the Taj Mahal, and his art collection was the result of a deep interest in Indian art and crafts and a desire to preserve traditional craft skills in a time of rapid mechanization.
  • Between his return from India and his appointment as Foreign Secretary he served with distinction in Lloyd George’s War Cabinet.
  • The Eastern Museum should be seen in the context of its origin in the Delhi Durbar Exhibition of 1903 and the scholarly work of Dr Gordon Watt that went into putting this exhibition and its catalogue together.

Lord Curzon & Conservation

“What is beautiful, what is historic, what tears the mask off the face of the past, and helps us to read its riddles, and to look it in the eyes – these, and not the dogmas of a combative theology, are the principal criteria to which we must look. ”    George Nathaniel Curzon

Lord Curzon’s heritage conservation work is mentioned, but it is worth dwelling on the extent of his achievements in this area. As Viceroy, Lord Curzon restored many ancient monuments in India, often at his own expense. Pandit Nehru famously said that, ‘After every other viceroy is forgotten, Curzon will be remembered because he restored all that was beautiful in India.’ The Taj Mahal at Agra was restored by the British from the 1780s onwards. Curzon was responsible for the restoration of its gateway, gardens and surrounding buildings. He said of the Taj Mahal, ‘If I have never done anything else in India, I have written my name here, and the letters are a living joy.’ He also restored the Mughal gardens at the Agra and Delhi forts and at Humayun’s and Akbar’s tombs and Government house at Calcutta, and set up the Archaeological Survey of India, which gave legal protection to historic cultural sites. He said of India that it had ‘the most wonderful and varied collection of ancient monuments in the world.’

Curzon and the National Trust

Lord Curzon was also active in conservation work in Britain. He was a great benefactor of the National Trust. In 1910 he hastily bought Tattershall Castle as the building was about to be dismantled for shipping to America. He tracked down the fireplaces that had been removed and reinstated them. He then restored the castle and presented it to the National Trust. He also restored and gave Bodiam Castle to the Trust, and was responsible for the restoration of Montacute House, another National Trust property, as well as Walmer Castle, Hackwood Park and his own home, Kedleston Hall.

He was more widely active in formulating government policy on the preservation of heritage and sat on several committees. After the narrowly avoided loss of Tattershall he was acutely aware of the need for wider protective legislation and said in a parliamentary debate on the Ancient Monuments Act in 1912, ‘We regard the national monuments to which this bill refers as part of the heritage and history of the nation. They are part of the heritage of the nation, because every citizen feels an interest in them…’ He added that such monuments ‘are part of the history of the nation because they are documents just as valuable in reading the records of the past as is any manuscript.’ The new Act should, he said, protect buildings such as manor houses, ‘and then, descending the scale, the smaller buildings, whether they be bridges, market crosses, cottages or even barns, which carry on their face the precious story of the past.’ Curzon achieved his goal, and the Act protected medieval structures and any monument of sufficient historic, architectural, artistic or archaeological interest. The protection and listing of monuments, as well as opening them to the public, became the responsibility of the Office of Works, the predecessor of English Heritage and Historic England.

Concerns about factual accuracy

Concerns have been raised about whether the descriptions on the National Trust’s website of Lord Curzon’s career and of objects related to Lord Curzon and the Eastern Museum at Kedleston Hall are fair and objective. Charles Moore, writing in the Spectator, pointed out several factual errors in a biography of Lord Curzon on the website. The page which contained the inaccuracies has now been removed. A spokesman for the National Trust told the Daily Mail:

‘This biographical article is an old piece of content. We have rigorous standards for fact checking our content but occasionally we do make errors and always correct them when they are noted. We aim to share balanced and well-researched stories of all the places in our care. We have taken down this page while we review and fact check the content.’

However, many statements and descriptions remain in the pages about Kedleston Hall and its collections which present facts selectively and risk giving an unfair impression.

The Eastern Museum at Kedleston Hall in context

The National Trust website tells us:

The ‘Eastern Museum’ on the ground floor of the hall displays many of the precious objects acquired by George Curzon during his Viceroyship of India and related travels in Asia and the Middle East. With an emphatically colonial provenance, this collection represents a diversity of cultural and artistic traditions as well as the spoils of empire.

It is clear from the speech given by Lord Curzon at the opening of the exhibition in Delhi that the event was designed to celebrate and encourage the highest standards of art and craftsmanship in India. It is misleading to describe the collection as ‘emphatically colonial’. Since Lord Curzon bought or was given these objects, it is also not accurate to call them ‘spoils.’

Not to be missed is Mary Curzon’s Peacock dress which now takes pride of place in its own room. You can now admire its delicate metal embroidery and beetle shell embellishments from every angle. The dress is over one hundred years old but it still able to captivate the room, much as it did when Lady Curzon wore it to the Delhi Durbar ball in 1903. It was designed not only as a beautiful object of fashion, but also as a deliberate political statement expressing British colonial power.’

In response to this statement, Curzon’s biographer David Gilmour told the Daily Mail, ‘There was no colonial connotation to this dress. To suggest that she wore it as a deliberate embodiment of British superiority is simply wrong.’

On the National Trust Collections website we are told that:

The Ball was the pinnacle of two weeks of events marking the succession of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra as Emperor and Empress of India. It was held in the Diwan-I-Khas at the Red Fort, Delhi, the historic residence of the Mughal Emperors. Lady Curzon’s dress deliberately referred to – or, as the historian Nicola J. Thomas writes, ‘replaced’ – the Peacock Throne which had originally stood in the Diwan-I-Khas (Thomas 2007, p. 392). This dazzling jewelled throne, now lost, was made for Shah Jahan in the early 17th century but was looted during the Persian invasion of Nader Shah in 1739. A replica throne was destroyed in 1857 when the British commandeered the Red Fort as a garrison in India’s First War of Independence.

The term ‘First War of Independence’ coined by the Hindu nationalist Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, is used by the current government of India, but is not generally used by historians, who prefer a more neutral term, such as ‘Indian Rebellion of 1857.’ The uprising of 1857 by no means enjoyed universal support in India. Citing the work of Dr Nicola J. Thomas is not unproblematic either. She continues her account of the Peacock Throne, paraphrased above, with:

Mary’s ball dress symbolically replaced the peacock throne on the evening of the ball. In doing so, the legitimacy of the British Raj as the rightful inheritor of the Mughal Empire was stated, while the later acts of British imperial violence that were witnessed in the halls of the Red Fort were silenced. This dress simultaneously nullified acts of imperial violence while acting as a potential sign of imperial possession.’ (Nicola J. Thomas, ‘Embodying imperial spectacle: dressing Lady Curzon, Vicereine of India 1899-1905’, Cultural Geographies, Vol. 14, No. 3 (July 2007), 369-400, pp. 392-3)

Dr Thompson offers no evidence for these contentious statements. She also writes:

The Peacock dress continues to have an afterlife that links it directly to acts of imperial power. The dress can usually be found on display in the ‘Eastern Museum’ at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire, the ancestral home of Mary’s husband. The museum brings together the spoils of empire that George acquired during his time as Viceroy of India, and as an ‘explorer’ who travelled to places such as Iran, Turkistan, Afghanistan, China, Korea and Japan.’ (page 393)

Again, this use of the word ‘spoils’ is inaccurate. Lord Curzon was given gifts as Viceroy, and also bought many works of art and craft items on his travels, often specially commissioned. The link between the Peacock Dress and the storming of the Red Fort 45 years previously (and two years before Lord Curzon was born) is tenuous. There is no evidence that the dress was intended as a reference to the throne; a simpler explanation is that the peacock feathers were intended to evoke the Hindu god Krishna and goddesses Saraswathi and Lakshmi, and their associations of compassion, wisdom and prosperity. In any case, Lord Curzon, as an admirer of Indian arts and crafts would very much have regretted the damage done to the buildings and the destruction of the throne under the East India Company.

The Eastern Museum grew out of the exhibition of Indian arts and crafts at the Delhi Durbar of 1903, and the objects on display are described in the catalogue of this exhibition. The exhibition was intended to promote Indian arts and craftsmanship and to contribute to Indian economic development in the spirit of the great 19th century trade exhibitions which succeeded the Great Exhibition of 1851. Lord Curzon gave a speech at the exhibition’s opening in Delhi in which he set out his ambitions for the future of Indian art. On his return to England, an exhibition of selected items was mounted in 1907 at the South Kensington Museum, as the Victoria and Albert Museum was then.

On Lord Curzon’s death this exhibition at the V&A was moved in its entirety and displayed at Kedleston as a memorial to him. It is of unique cultural and historical importance. The labels which still accompany the display at Kedleston are those which were created for the V&A in 1907, and they preserve extracts from the catalogue created for the Delhi Exhibition by Dr Gordon Watt. The presentation of the collection is no less important than the items themselves.

The National Trust’s plans for the Eastern Museum

Under the heading ‘A Year of Listening’ the National Trust sets out its plans for the Eastern Museum (https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/kedleston-hall/features/a-year-of-listening):

2019 was a year of listening for us to listen to our visitors, local communities and supporters and national thought-leaders. This is the first step in a project to change how the Eastern Museum collection at Kedleston Hall is displayed, interpreted and represented. By opening up our eyes, ears and hearts we will deepen our knowledge and understanding of Kedleston’s special collection within the Eastern Museum and we will begin to explore the many ways in which more people can connect with Kedleston’s significance as a colonial collection.

We are told about the ‘(so-called) Eastern Museum’ that ‘there is powerful potential for us to work in a new way to create a space where we can care for these objects, and tell stories that move, teach and inspire our audiences. Over the next three years we intend to change how the collection is displayed, how the collection is interpreted, whose voices are heard, which truths are represented, the way the property feels, and the internal culture which supports this.’

The National Trust’s plans as they are set out on its webpages to change the presentation of the Eastern Museum seem fraught with risk, not least of irreparable damage to the historic layout and labelling of the collection. The items in this collection were originally presented to the V&A, researched and labelled by their experts and later re-patriated to Kedleston before the late Francis Curzon, the 3rd Viscount Scarsdale was compelled by his inheritance tax bill to hand it to the Trust along with a substantial endowment. The destruction of the historic display is a serious matter. The statement above does not suggest that the museum is being considered in the light of its history and with due regard to the facts. Many questions are raised, but not answered. Who are the ‘national thought-leaders’? How will the ‘voices’ which are to be heard be selected? As for which ‘truths’ will be represented, would it be too much to hope for the factual ones? Will some ‘truths’ be omitted? The emotional language used here is cause for concern that evidence-based scholarship is no longer a priority.

In an introduction to the interim report on colonialism and slavery, entitled ‘Addressing our histories of colonialism and historic slavery’ (https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/addressing-the-histories-of-slavery-and-colonialism-at-the-national-trust#Background%20to%20colonialism%20report) the following account is given of the Eastern Museum:

The display of Indian and other Asian objects in the ‘Eastern Museum’ at Kedleston Hall is a testament to British Imperialism in India at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The objects were acquired by George Curzon (1859–1925), Viceroy of India, 1899–1905. By all accounts Curzon had a passion for Indian art and artefacts, but in recent years we have recognised that our method of display of objects was culturally insensitive. A new project is underway to work with experts in Asian art and history as well as Asian communities to research, interpret and redisplay the collection as much more than the beautiful spoils of Empire.

Here again, the word ‘spoils’ misrepresents what the collections is and how it was formed. Far from being an assertion of power, the Delhi Exhibition and this collection are a vote of confidence in the skill and imagination of Indian artists.

Given how historically significant this museum is, it would be reasonable to expect full evidence of the charge that it is ‘culturally insensitive’, and any proposals for changes would need to be very well motivated. No evidence is offered that such changes are necessary. The only response in the public domain of groups of local people of Indian heritage visiting the museum is that they were ‘fascinated’ and ‘enjoyed looking at objects, describing the detail of art and craft contained in the Eastern Museum work as ‘some of the best things ever made.’ (https://www.bcva.info/blog/2020/4/16/national-trust-embraces-first-changes-in-120-years-through-bcva-director-anand-chhabra)

This is what we are told about a photograph of Lord Curzon in a carved ivory frame incorporating Hindu iconography:

The tradition of ornamental ivory carving has existed in India since the 1st century CE, each region with its own speciality. Although international trade of Asian elephant ivory was banned in 1975, illegal trade continues to threaten this endangered species. Kedleston contains a substantial collection of Indian ivories produced in artisanal centres such as Murshidabad in West Bengal and Mysuru (Mysore). George Curzon amassed many such objects during his enforcement of British rule in India and related travels across the Asian continent. He collected religious, military, and domestic objects encompassing a diversity of cultural and artistic traditions. As the most powerful figure in the Indian colonial administration, he was also given an abundance of gifts, these representing relationships of power. Curzon displayed the collection in a purpose-built ‘Eastern Museum’, which is arranged taxonomically from a western perspective. A new project is underway to research, interpret and redisplay the ‘Eastern Museum’ in partnership with communities of interest and experts in Asian art and history.

http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/107838

This account is selective and does not reflect the facts fairly. The Eastern Museum was created after Lord Curzon’s death. Today the Asian elephant is endangered, but this was not the case in Lord Curzon’s time. The buyers of illegal ivory today are mainly in the Far East. The main cause of the decline of the elephant population is the loss of habitat, driven by the increase in human populations and the destruction of forest to enable agriculture. The National Trust can do its bit to help preserve habitats for these animals by avoiding palm oil products in its restaurants and gift shops.

The story of British rule in India is far more complex, and more interesting, than is suggested here. It was based on close collaboration with elements of the Indian elite, such as princes, landowners, tribal chieftains, religious elites, the urban business classes and Western-educated Indians, who saw British rule as serving their interests. At that time British India had a European population of about 160,000 people, only 50,000 of whom were troops, in a country with more than 350 million people. As Viceroy, Lord Curzon was at the head of a government and its civil service, and did not exercise much power as an individual, and it is not accurate to describe his role as one of ‘enforcement.’

The arrangement of Oriental art from a Western perspective is what gives the Eastern Museum its interest and value. It enables us to see at first hand how Europeans in the early 20th century looked at Indian and Far Eastern art. Removing the items from their places would destroy this unique historic arrangement. We come to Kedleston not only to look at Indian art (which we could also do in the V&A or the British Museum), but to see it through Edwardian eyes. It is alarming that ‘Eastern Museum’ is repeatedly placed in quotation marks, suggesting that the National Trust plans to erase a piece of history by not only doing away with the arrangement of the museum, but also its name.

It is particularly worrying that this destruction is proposed in the name of reaching out to the Indian diaspora. People in India today are less interested in being victims of the Raj and more interested in getting ahead. Indians living in the West are, on the whole, confident people from diverse backgrounds with a variety of points of view who are just as interested in gaining an insight into Kedleston and its history as anyone else. The suggestion that the opportunity for such insight should be taken away for their sake is patronizing and unfortunate.

The Colonial Countryside project at Kedleston

As part of the Colonial Countryside project, a group of children from a local primary school spoke in videos and wrote poems about some of the objects at Kedleston Hall. The National Trust website told us that ‘their take on the objects shows the collection in a new light.’ When Kedleston re-opens to the public, their poems will be displayed alongside the pieces in the museum. The page introducing the exhibition has now been removed, as has the page on Lord Curzon’s portrait. Pages on other pieces from the exhibition can still be viewed, for example, https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/kedleston-hall/features/if-i-could-talk-exhibition-peacock-dress

In a video discussion on the Peacock Dress the children wonder whether the dress was worn by ‘a celebrity’ and speculate about its cost and weight. On the portrait of Lord Curzon, the children muse on his wealth and importance and wonder what he was like as a person. This poem also appears:

He thinks he’s strong,
trying to take over India.
Although this was successful,
he still didn’t have any believers.
Trying to look posh by ill-treating animals,
for some reason, this makes him popular
with the British.
Some of the Indians, they tried to get
their country back, organising a siege.
Although this worked, it came at a cost.

Unsurprisingly, the child’s response offers us no fresh insights. Little attention is paid to factual accuracy, nor is there any attempt at nuance or empathy.

Conclusion

To ‘tear the mask off the face of the past’ takes painstaking work and an open mind. Once the arrangement of the museum is done away with, a significant point of view will be lost. As the custodian of this piece of heritage, the National Trust has been entrusted on our behalf with the responsibility to do its work thoroughly and take it seriously. When listening to ‘voices’ and considering ‘truths’ it needs to maintain a standard of objectivity and act in the interest of the nation as a whole, and of future generations.

 

By courtesy of Restore Trust  https://www.restoretrust.org.uk/

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