Decolonising the Museum: Digital Repatriation of the Gaidinliu Collection from the UK to India (DiMuse)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Divinity


Between 1929 and 1932, Gaidinliu, a Zeliangrong Naga girl, instigated an uprising against British colonial rule in the present-day Indian regions of Assam, Nagaland, and Manipur. When eventually captured, Gaidinliu was imprisoned and the British confiscated her notebooks, body cloths, bracelets and amulets, and other ritual objects. These objects were donated to the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, and are now known as the Gaidinliu collection. Since her death in 1993, Gaidinliu has become a celebrated figure in modern India and a prominent symbol of Indian independence. The continued existence of the Gaidinliu collection in a UK museum thus raises important and timely questions about whether and how the objects in the collection should be returned to the Indigenous peoples from whom they were taken, questions that are especially pertinent as UK museums discuss decolonising their exhibitions.

The DiMuse project addresses a gap in the research literature by critically investigating one way of repatriating objects (a 'digital museum') and exploring how the Gaidinliu collection may be circulated and accessed after its 'return'. Previous work has focused mainly on acts of giving back and has not considered the Northeast of India, a region with a rich and challenging history of encounters with British colonialism that is only now beginning to be understood. Repatriation has been explored in other Indigenous communities in North America and Oceania but these communities are not resource-poor, unlike the Zeliangrong Nagas. This project provides a unique opportunity for Indigenous communities in a relatively remote highland area to re-engage with objects from their past.

DiMuse investigates six main research questions. By creating an 'exhibition in motion', it asks:

1. What can 'digital repatriation', as ethnographic method, tell us about the role museums play as distributive institutions rather than conserving locations?
2. How do objects interact with people outside the museum space and how do people in turn find (multiple) meanings in these encounters?
3. How do time and distance affect the narratives and the politics of collective memory?
4. What responses are triggered when the digital collection is returned 'home' and is circulated via social media and other forms of online dissemination?
5. What can the digital museum tell us about online interactions?
6. Is 'digital repatriation' an effective strategy for decolonising the museum, and what are the ethical futures of Indigenous collections in Western museums?

Partnership with Zeliangrong Nagas in Northeast India and a range of ethnographic methods - oral, visual and analytical - are central to the project. A community-curated workshop in Haflong will focus on digital images of objects in the Gaidinliu collection and responses to its 'repatriation'. An exhibition in Guwahati (Assam) will build on the workshop and extend its remit by including images of Gaidinliu as a freedom fighter and national figure. A final exhibition, in Oxford, will consolidate the two events and, for the first time, engage with the physical collection.

By involving multiple stakeholders, DiMuse will show how the Gaidinliu collection needs to be rethought, reframed, and challenged. It will also open up larger questions regarding digital repatriation, ownership, and knowledge production. How do objects evolve both because interpretations of, and priorities about, them alter, and because they affect people in different ways at different times? How can the project inform international debates about Indigenous traditional knowledge protection and the promotion of Indigenous intellectual property rights? Findings will be disseminated widely through digital media, including a website, WhatsApp, video, film, a graphic novel, and various popular and academic publications, to reach both Indigenous communities and staff and students in museums and educational institutions in India and UK.


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