(Our second contribution looking forward to the ‘Institutions as Curators’ workshop is by  Suchitra Choudhury, who is currently a postdoctoral researcher and a participant in the University of Glasgow’s ‘Second Cities of Empire’ project.  Below, she discusses the interplay between the meanings of objects produced through circulations and collections and their literary values as multivalent symbols.)

A lithograph plate showing a variety of ways of wearing shawls in early 19th-century France (ca. 1802-1814); redrawn from various early 19th-century sources by F. Durin for Albert Charles Auguste Racinet’s Le Costume Historique (1888). Wikimedia Commons.

The museum is usually seen as a self-contained organism, more or less untouched by what happens outside its zone of frozen time.  As the philosopher Michel Foucault wrote, spaces of representation such as the museum operate as ‘heterotopia […] constituting a place of all times that is itself outside time.’[1]  However, this interpretation can seem hasty and premature, especially if we consider museums to be curators.

The life of a thing – or rather, a ‘commodity’ – is shaped by its circulation in the market.  During this period, it is talked about, bought, sold, exchanged, gifted, stolen, repaired, and reused.  This glorious period, however, comes to an end with the object’s sad but inevitable relegation to a space outside the circuit of exchange and desire.  But the working commodity’s socio-economic ‘death’ also heralds its new existence in a different sphere of publicity – in the discourse of ‘heritage’ – where it is empowered through its explicit ‘non-functional’ character.  The object theorist, Annie Coombes, for instance, has pointed out how the question of heritage is sometimes marked by an element of profound contradiction:

It is important to realise that the heritage boom is fraught with ambivalence.  In Britain for example, there is a cruel irony in the tendency to set up museums of working life in once thriving industrial areas where unemployment has now decimated the workforce and shut down the very industries that are represented as ‘living’ displays in the heritage museums.[2]

Such a process of slow change and transformation in the meaning of objects is central to my research on Cashmere and Paisley shawls in literature, which I conducted at Glasgow under the supervision of Professor Nigel Leask and Dr. Andrew Radford.

From the 1780s until the end of the nineteenth century, a vast number of Indian shawls were brought into Britain.  Traders introduced and sold them, and those who were fortunate enough to have an acquaintance in the East India Company were delighted to receive them as gifts or mementos.  As highly fashionable dress accessories, the possession of Indian shawls was an overt expression of taste and style.  However, their massive expense also meant that they functioned as a way to exhibit one’s affluence and wealth.  Far from this world of fashion and conspicuous consumption, ordinary women were content to purchase the Cashmere-styled, imitation ‘Paisley’ shawls which were affordably produced in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Norwich.  As Charles Knight, Victorian promulgator of cheap literature and useful knowledge, observed in an article in Household Words in 1851, ‘the shawls of Paisley […] [were] for the comfort and the decent ornament of the humblest in the land’.[3]

Francis Henry Newbery, ‘The Paisley Shawl’. Paisley Art Institute Collection, held by Paisley Museum and Art Galleries.

There has been a good deal of research on shawls by textile historians such John Irwin, Pamela Clabburn and Valerie Reilly.  However, it is only recently that we are beginning to appreciate the way in which the figure of the shawl also forms an important metaphor for social and imperial ideologies.  For instance, Sir Walter Scott, in his novella partly set in India, ‘The Surgeon’s Daughter’ (1827), observes that ‘Like the imitative operatives of Paisley, I have composed my shawl by incorporating into the woof a little Thibet wool’.  In this description, Scott carefully projects a modern industrial image of Scotland to institute an analogy between shawl-production and his writing.  But the analogy is also textured in that it offers a tongue-in-cheek reference to the colonial practice of using raw material from the outposts to produce viable commodities.  The subcontinental background of the Paisley shawl, as this description shows, was clearly something that was taken for granted in these decades.

My doctoral research was on a ‘postcolonial’ English literature topic.  However, my perspective was also shaped and stretched by the collections of shawls in the Paisley Museum and the Hunterian Museum.  The latter, situated a stone’s throw from my department, has a small but significant collection of shawls.  Excitingly, it also brought to my view a variety of pattern designs, created by the weavers of Paisley during the mid-nineteenth century.  These vibrant, colourful patterns seemed to have escaped the ravages of time!

Paisley Shawl Design Materials, c. 1830s. The Hunterian Museum.

As an Indian, I am only too aware that the ‘Paisley pattern’ is a distinctly Eastern design that dominates a variety of surfaces in the subcontinent.  A trip to the Paisley Museum, undertaken to view its historic collection of shawls, however, made me realise the divergent ways in which the pattern was recreated and generated for a different audience in the West.  In this connection, I also came to appreciate how these shawls might have functioned, not just as potent reminders of the East, but also, given the specific character of the nineteenth century, as a powerful insignia of the British empire.  This visual experience went a long way to feed into my argument that the British-made Paisley shawls were really an indirect way of representing India in nineteenth-century literature and culture.

Following from the example of Scott, let us consider another writer to show what I mean.  Wilkie Collins, a mid-nineteenth century author of ‘sensation’ thrillers, depicts his heroine in a ‘red Paisley shawl’ in his novel Armadale (1866).  In the novel, Lydia Gwilt is endowed with striking good looks and manners.  Unfortunately, these aspects mostly serve to hide her disturbingly violent and criminal nature.  It struck me while reading the novel that whenever she was described in her red shawl, the narrative became knotted with a sense of fear and premonition.  How, I wondered, might we explain this eerie feeling?  Was there any way in which the Paisley shawl stood for more than simply a trivial fashion item?  For one thing, to the first readers of Armadale, the shawl was easily associated with India.  And there lay the clue – the association at the time would have also recalled the Indian Mutiny of 1857, in which many British lives were lost.  Could we, then, venture to consider that the Paisley shawl in Armadale was actually a covert reference to the great subcontinental rebellion?

The brief examples of Walter Scott and Wilkie Collins serve to show how the Paisley shawl enjoyed an evolving, dynamic presence in Victorian narratives.  For Scott, as we saw, it signalled a prosperous Scotland based on the opportunities that the Empire brought home.  But in Collins’s novel, the same shawl emerges as a symbol of a threatening Other.  The cultural critic Igor Kopytoff has explained that:

The production of commodities is […] a cultural and cognitive process: commodities must not only be produced materially as things, but also culturally marked as being a certain kind of thing. […] Such shifts and differences in whether and when a thing is a commodity reveal a moral economy that stands behind the objective economy of visible transactions.[4]

As we realise the nature of institutions as curators, with their explicit power to choose and regulate objects and their meanings, we also become alerted to the way in which they regularly hold up a carnivalesque play of time and perspectives, quite distinct from the frozen time Foucault described at the start of this piece.  Because objects change their meanings all the time, museums also organise new ways of looking, not just at objects but also at the past.  So, when Foucault talked about the museum as being ‘outside the space of time’ clearly, he was looking forward to enjoying a good debate on the subject!

Further Reading

Suchitra Choudhury, ‘It was an imitashon to be sure’: The Imitation Indian Shawl in Design Reform and Imaginative Fiction’, Textile History, 46.2 (2015), 189–212. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00404969.2015.1121666.

Suchitra Choudhury, ‘Fashion and the “Indian Mutiny”: The “Red Paisley Shawl” in Wilkie Collins’s Armadale’, Victorian Literature and Culture, 44.4 (2016), 817-832. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1060150316000231.


[1] Michel Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces,’ Diacritics, 16.1 (1986), 22-27 (p. 26).

[2] Annie Coombes, ‘The Recalcitrant Object: Culture Contacts and the Question of Hybridity’, in Colonial Discourse/Postcolonial Theory, ed. by Francis Baker et al. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), pp. 89-114 (p. 112n).

[3] Charles Knight, ‘Three May-Days in London’, Household Words, 3 May 1851, p. 123.

[4] Igor Kopytoff, ‘The Cultural Biography of Things’, in The Social Life of Things, ed. by Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 64-94 (p. 64).