Trophies of Empire

Empire brought an extraordinary array of art, artefacts and natural history into British collections, and new opportunities for artists to record them. 

In the first museums, ‘natural’ and ‘artificial curiosities’ from around the world served as ‘experiments’ in ‘laboratories’ of new knowledge. Learned societies, such as the Asiatic Society of Bengal founded in 1784, studied and collected art, antiquities and literature. Orientalist amateurs became linguists, scholars and connoisseurs. Colonial naturalists collected plants, animals and birds, commissioned artists to portray them or sent home live specimens. ‘Discovery voyages’, accompanied by artists and experts, brought back to Britain examples of material culture. 

Collecting for research or to develop expertise was an elite occupation, often shared between colonial and indigenous ruling classes. Collections sometimes served as records of diplomacy or negotiation. Much else was acquired fortuitously, opportunistically, or as souvenirs by people who would not have recognised themselves as collectors at all. Loot, barter, gift and purchase by soldiers, sailors, explorers, missionaries and traders all contributed to Empire’s collections. This room shows some of the different ways in which the world was brought to Britain through the various transactions of Empire, and the status accorded to objects and specimens by collectors, artists and subsequently museums.