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Research on the Collections: The Indigenous Map

Research on the Collections: The Indigenous Map
27 Mar
For the past ten years, the Society has supported PhD students carrying out research on our Collections with funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Collaborative Doctoral Awards. One of the current students is Joy Slappnig, who has recently returned from a fieldwork trip to Delhi in support of her PhD project, The Indigenous Map

Based at Royal Holloway, University of London, Joy is researching the extent of Indigenous contributions to the maps held in our Collections, in order to explore the historical significance of maps of Indigenous origin and their purpose as a source of geographic information. The majority of the maps in the Society’s Collections consist of printed maps, but there are also manuscript maps from a number of sources. As Joy explains, ‘My project expands on other studies of the British Empire, which show that colonisers depended, in many different ways, on Indigenous peoples. I started my PhD with a survey of the Society’s map collection, drawing up a list of different items I wanted to investigate further. I came across maps from a great variety of times and places, such as paper maps of trans-Saharan caravan routes drawn by slaves and Arab traders in the 1820s; engraved copies of Inuit maps included in a narrative of an Arctic exploration from 1835; and a lithograph of a Tibetan map, the original of which was used by the Tibetan military in a war with the British in 1888.’

WEBMhones experiences of the road between Zimmey and Moulmein 14 crop

One of the case studies for Joy’s project is focused on a collection of manuscript maps made by Burmese traders in the 1870s and she discovered that a number of the original maps (and not tracings of them) were held at the National Archives of India. Funded by grants from the Royal Historical Society and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, she travelled to Delhi for three weeks to see these maps for herself. ‘About half of the maps at the Society are original drawings in watercolour, containing various inscriptions in Burmese, but the other half are copied tracings, with English inscriptions. I wanted to see the maps held at the National Archives of India in order to find out how well the maps I had been working with were copied, and whether the English translations matched the Burmese originals.’

Joy hoped that seeing the originals would help her find out more about the significance of these maps at the time they were made, and how the Indigenous knowledge they contained was used and understood by the Society and the Survey of India, where the tracings of the maps were made. She was not disappointed. ‘Although at first glance, the originals looked more or less identical to the tracings (except with Burmese rather than English writing), there was a certain quality to the original manuscripts that you don’t get in copies. For instance, it became clear that at least some of them were made by more than one person with different kinds of handwriting in different pens – details that aren’t discernible on the tracings. Moreover, the originals had clearly been used differently than the tracings, having been folded up and possibly carried around. These are important details that can help me get closer to the Burmese and British people involved in their production.’

Now back in the UK, Joy is confident that her trip to Delhi has further enhanced her understanding of the maps held at the Society, as well as developing her skills working with archival materials. ‘This trip will help me write a more nuanced history of the Burmese maps held at the Society and it has provided me with more experience working with archives and collections, further convincing me that it is crucial to collaborate and exchange knowledge with peers living and working in the places that I’m researching and writing about.’

The Society has supported 12 Collaborative Doctoral Award projects so far involving collaborations between university-based PhD students, academic researchers and our Collections team. As part of the Science Museums and Archives Consortium, six PhD studentships are awarded each year. You can find out more about the other projects we have supported on our website: www.rgs.org/collaborativestudentships

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