Elephants and Empire in Colonial Burma: Exhibiting Historical Photographs in Myanmar and the UK

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: School of History


Colonial rule precipitated dramatic ecological change in Myanmar during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. One of the consequences of this change is the current precarious position of Myanmar's elephant populations. Their insecurity is primarily the result of a loss of habitat, hunting and the capture of wild elephants for timber work. Both are legacies of imperial-era forestry policies. Today Myanmar has the second largest Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) population, with an estimated 5000 working elephants kept in a state of semi-captivity and 4000 remaining in the wild. At its peak in the 1930s, there were between 7000 and 10000 working elephants in Myanmar. It is evident from the findings of my research fellowship 'An Animal History of Colonial Burma' (AH/L014939/1) that under British rule the balance of wild to working elephants shifted decisively against the former. More widely, Asian elephants are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as an endangered species. In this context, the form of semi-captivity in which working elephants are kept offers some prospect for helping to protect the species as whole. Ongoing research by the Myanmar Timber Elephant project at the University of Sheffield has looked into ways of improving the mortality and fertility of semi-captive elephants in the country. Through their research they hope to relieve some of the current pressures put on the remaining wild herds created by the demand to capture replacement working elephants. My project aims to raise awareness of the history of Myanmar's elephant population, and the role of British imperialism within it. It also seeks to frame ongoing attempts to protect elephants within debates around environmental justice and colonial legacies, facilitating a debate about former imperial powers' responsibility for ecological degradation in the Majority World. At the same time the project will signpost audiences to projects helping to protect Myanmar's elephants.

The project will raise awareness of, facilitate debate about, and signpost support for, Myanmar's elephants through an exhibition displaying historical photographs of working elephants in colonial Burma in the interwar years. The free public exhibition will be held at the University of Leeds and then move to Yangon, where it will be hosted by the country's only not-for-profit gallery dedicated to photography, Myanmar Deitta. Following the end of the exhibition in Yangon, the photographs will go to the Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp, a sanctuary for retired working elephants near Kalaw in the Southern Shan States. Once there they will form part of an educational display. The photographs were uncovered during my fellowship whilst I was conducting research in the London Metropolitan Archives. The full collection of 64 photographs, from which the exhibits will be selected, are in the archives of Steel Brothers and Company Ltd., a British timber firm that operated in colonial Burma. In order to make all these images freely available for researchers they will be scanned and stored on an online archive hosted by the University of Leeds. The images held in this archive will be useful for environmental historians, imperial historians, visual culture scholars, and specialists working in Myanmar studies.

Planned Impact

The follow-on-funding will enable me to generate new pathways to impact from the AHRC Leadership Fellowship 'An Animal History of Colonial Burma' that could not have been anticipated before the fellowship commenced. There are two findings that emerged during the fellowship that will enable me to realise wider engagements with new audiences. The first is my finding that British colonial rule was pivotal in bringing about the current precarious ecological context for Myanmar's elephant populations. The second is my uncovering of a collection of historical photographs of teak extraction operations in Myanmar's forests during the interwar years held in the London Metropolitan Archives. These photographs illustrate the extent of British timber firms' employment of elephant labour in the forests and as such provide an opportunity for raising awareness of Britain's historical role in Myanmar's contemporary environmental challenges and, through this, cultivate support for attempts to protect this endangered species and its habitat. This will be achieved through an exhibition of the photographs to be held at the University of Leeds and then at Myanmar Deitta, a photographic gallery in Yangon. Once these exhibitions have finished, the photographs will go to the Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp, Kalaw, to form part of an educational display for visitors and local communities.

The original research project devised pathways to impact within the city of Bristol, through working with the Bristol Museum. This culminated in an online exhibition displaying artifacts from Myanmar currently held in the Museum's stores. The main beneficiary of this engagement was the Museum, who were able to professionally photograph, digitise and learn more about their collections. The primary audience was the museum-going public with an interest in Myanmar, British imperialism or Bristol. The follow-on-funding will take the research completed during the fellowship to different audiences. The exhibition at the University of Leeds will draw in a UK audience interested in issues of wildlife conservation, environmental justice and climate change. The exhibition in Yangon and the educational display in Kalaw will reach a Myanmar audience engaged with the issue of preserving the country's biodiversity in general, and the protection of elephants in particular. The follow-on-funding will also strengthen links with new project partners in the UK and Myanmar. Through a public talk hosted by the London Metropolitan Archives the project will draw attention to the global scope of their collections. Within Myanmar, the project will establish meaningful links with an elephant sanctuary and help support its model of conservation through sustainable ecotourism. It will also facilitate ties with emerging cultural institutions in Myanmar's growing art scene through supporting the work of Myanmar Deitta.

In order to ensure impacts beyond the lifespan of the project, the collection of 64 photographs of timber operations held by the London Metropolitan Archives will be scanned and stored digitally in an online archive hosted by the University of Leeds. Through this online archive, researchers and students will be able to access these historical sources, which are currently hard for many to access, particularly those outside of the UK.
Description Using the follow-on-funding I was able to reprint historical photographs of working elephants (found during research on my Fellowship AH/L014939/1) that then formed the basis of an exhibition about the impact of empire on elephant populations that was held in January to February 2017 at Myanmar Deitta, a not-for-profit photographic gallery in Yangon. This was a well attended exhibition, that informed and changed views on the history of empire's environmental impact, encouraged visitors to engage with Myanmar Deitta and was reported in the local media. Following the close of the exhibition, the exhibits have become part of the Green Hill Valley elephant sanctuary's educational displays, where they have provided their visitors with historical information on the plight of Myanmar's elephants and served to provide greater awareness of the work done at the sanctuary.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Creative Economy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Title Elephants and Empire 
Description Through the project I have digitised the photographs held in the London Metropolitan Archives of timber operations in colonial Burma and made them available via an online database. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Since it has been established, project partners in Myanmar have signposted people owning private collections of similar photographs from the colonial era to me to add their collections to the website, thus potentially making more historical photography available. I am currently follow-up these contacts to begin the process. 
URL http://elephantsandempire.leeds.ac.uk/
Description Elephants and Empire Photographic Exhibition 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The central objective of the project was to reproduce historical photographs of working elephants taken in the 1920s and 1930s and to exhibit them in Myanmar. These photographs were uncovered during the fellowship and are currently held in the London Metropolitan Archives. The exhibition was funded through an AHRC Follow-on-Funding for Impact and Engagement Grant. The exhibition facilitated a wider understanding of the pivotal role that colonial rule had in bringing about the current precarious contemporary situation of Myanmar's elephant populations. The historical evidence that I uncovered during my fellowship demonstrates that British rule precipitated a marked rise in the numbers of working elephants at the expense of wild herds, whose numbers have declined as a result of operations to capture them for labour, habitat destruction and hunting.

The exhibition was held at Myanmar Deitta, the country's only not-for-profit gallery dedicated to photography. The exhibition ran for four weeks and was the first held in Myanmar to use materials held in UK archives. The visitors' book for the exhibition contains comments demonstrating some of the impact that the photographs had on the general audience that visited, with several visitors commenting on how they had learned about the plight of elephants. The exhibition was also covered in the online Southeast Asian newspaper Yangon Coconuts. The article drew attention not only to the exhibition, but the impact of British imperialism on Myanmar's elephant population. Myanmar Deitta have also written to me outlining how the exhibition expanded their usual audiences to those interested in historical photographs and helped to build ties with UK institutions. They indicate that they had some local Yangon school's visit the exhibition.

Following the exhibition's closure, the photographs have gone to the Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp where they form part of a permanent educational display. Green Hill Valley is a sanctuary for retired working elephants that works to replant teak forests in the Southern Shan States through sustainable ecotourism. The photographs add to their on-going programme educating visitors and local residents about the importance of elephant preservation as well as sustainable ecological management. Green Hill Valley have written to me to state how the photographs have enhanced their visitors' experiences. The new display was launched on World Elephant Day in 2017, an event attended by local politicians among others from the region.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018