The history of Indian coin collectors
Shreya Gupta is an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded Collaborative Doctoral Partnership (CDP) History PhD student working in collaboration with University of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. The focus of her PhD’s research is based around the history of four collections of Indian coins in a project entitled “Decolonising Collections: Uncovering British and Indian collectors’ networks behind British numismatic collections”.
Shreya’s supervisors are Professor Nandini Chatterjee from History and Professor Nicola Thomas from Geography. As a CDP student, Shreya also has a supervisor from the Ashmolean Museum, Dr Shailendra Bhandare.
What is your background?
I find history fascinating because of how interdisciplinary it can be. For instance, South Asian history can be explored through its museums and monuments as well as through poetry, cinema, and the environment, among many other facets. I studied history for my undergraduate degree, did my master’s in history and I am now pursuing a PhD in it. History’s interdisciplinary nature was precisely what appealed to me about my PhD. I am an AHRC funded Collaborative Doctoral Partnership (CDP) student, which means that I do my PhD at Exeter while being partnered with a heritage organisation, which in my case is the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. I get to work closely with the museum’s collections, and they also form the basis of my research.
I am looking at the history of four collections of Indian coins currently in the Ashmolean, the British Museum, and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Although named after European male collectors – Jose Gerson da Cunha, H. Nelson Wright, Alfred Master, and R. B. Whitehead, we know little about the Indian scholars and collectors who helped them in assembling these collections.
I aim is to uncover the role of these Indians in creating these coin collections and in producing knowledge about Indian history and numismatics on their basis. The project primarily traces collecting histories, but it also draws on decolonisation, museology, material culture studies, historical geography, and network analysis to recover that history.
What is next for your research?
I am still in the first year of my PhD, however, in this short time I have already had a chance to be in some very exciting museums and libraries. I have interacted with the wonderful staff at the Ashmolean and the British Museum and looked at the coin collections I am researching. I have also done archival work in the Fitzwilliam and the British Library. All these visits have been incredibly exciting. Working with physical objects from our histories has helped me connect with my research more deeply.
As a CDP student, I also get the exciting chance to do a six-month work placement with a heritage organisation. I strongly believe in public history and taking academic research beyond the four walls of a classroom. Hence, I am looking forward to the placement and to contributing to some public-facing impactful work.
Another reason I decided to do this particular PhD was because I find objects to be a powerful conduit in helping people connect with their many histories and heritage. In the long term, I hope to be able to work in the arts, culture, and heritage sector where I can continue to tell important stories to people in ways that they find exciting and enriching
What are the best and worst things about your field of work?
The best thing about my PhD is its collaboration with museums. Not only have I been able to work with objects, but I have also met people who are very passionate about museum collections and telling these histories to a non-specialised audience. Some museums have started to talk about histories from South Asia- even if they are difficult-in their labels and panels and have put up fresh exhibitions on themes from South Asian history which bring in diverse voices from the community. It is exciting to see people in the UK appreciate this history and learn about how closely South Asian and British history is interlinked.
However, both the academic and the arts, culture and heritage sector is notorious for how competitive it is. It has not been easy to navigate this space as an international student, even with the comfort of having regular funding for my research. At the same time, I am aware of the social and financial privileges which have provided me with enough support to be able to make this transition from India to the UK. I hope that more projects like this CDP can foster enriching collaborations between the academic and heritage sector and enable people to research and tell fuller histories from diverse regions.