Casket Case Study: The casket in the British Museum


Great Court, British Museum

From the Acquisition Registers of the British Museum, which record all donations, purchases and bequests which enter the Museum from other institutions and private individuals, we can trace the casket’s continued journey. As already mentioned, it was donated to the Museum by Henry Fraser in 1904 and the register records  that on the 6 October 1904, Col Henry Fraser gave an ‘attar khana, taken at siege of Seringapatam 1799, the native forces being under Tipoo Sultan, whose father’s name (Hyder ‘Ali) is on the silver funnel’.[1] The brief reference in the Acquisition Register and the fact that this was the only known object given by Fraser, whose family had had extensive ties to India over the previous century, shows that even when the casket was donated, its intended use, as a holder of perfumes and, most importantly, its historical connection to Tipu Sultan and his father, were intrinsic to its value to the Museum and possibly the reason for its donation.

At the time of the casket’s donation, the Museum was divided into five collection departments: Coins and Medals, Prints and Drawings, Greek and Roman Antiquities, Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities and British and Mediaeval Antiquities.  It was into this latter department that the casket was stored. The British and Mediaeval Antiquities department at this time housed vast amounts of material from across Asia alongside other material which did not fit neatly within the remaining four collection departments. The casket remained within the British and Medieval department until 1933 when the Oriental Antiquities department was formed. This department was renamed as the Asia department in 2003.

According to the Museum archives, the casket was first put on public display in 2002 in the Addis Gallery of Islamic Art and has remained on exhibition there since. Housed in a cabinet containing Mughal-era objects, its positioning in this display and in this context poses interesting questions regarding later Indian history and how it is explored within the Museum. The label which accompanies the casket briefly refers to its link to Tipu Sultan and the siege of Seringapatam, but does not elaborate on either Tipu Sultan or his father’s place within South Asian history or on the casket’s production or style. Although Hyder ‘Ali and Tipu Sultan maintained correspondence with the Mughal rulers during the eighteenth century and had a mutual enemy in the British East India Company, both father and son acted and ruled their kingdom independent of the Mughal empire. Both maintained their own armies and issued their own coinage. The casket’s positioning in a case dedicated to the Mughal period in India in which the casket is the only object not identified as made either for or connected to the Mughal courts, and the display of other Tipu related items held by the Museum in the Enlightenment gallery suggests that these objects and their associated object histories defy easy definition and placement.

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[1] British Museum Acquisition registers, 6th October 1904.