6 July 2015

Military Encounters – Reassessing military collecting in North America and Tibet

From March to August 2014 National Museums Scotland led a project funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme called Military Encounters – Reassessing military collecting in North America and Tibet. The aim of this project was to bring together material culture specialists from the fields of anthropology and military history to survey and assess the interpretive potential of ethnographic material in military collections with reference to two selected British campaigns: the Seven Years’ War in North America (1754-63), later expanded to include 19th century material, and the Younghusband Mission to Tibet (1903-04).

Figure 1: Original caption: ‘Group of Officers 1st Batt Royal Fusiliers, Taken at Kang-Ma, Thibet, on June 24th 1904’ Image © The Fusilier Museum
The project leaders were Dr Henrietta Lidchi, Keeper, Department of World Cultures, and Dr Stuart Allan, Principal Curator, Scottish Late Modern. As the project’s research assistant, I initially contacted twenty-eight regimental museums across the UK and visited the following nine collections with relevant material:

Tower of London
Norwich Castle
Gillingham, Kent
Tibet & North America
North America
North America
North America
North America

The survey included objects, photographs and archival holdings. In addition, most regiment’s have their own journal which can contain useful information about the history their collections, acquisitions and former displays.

The Royal Engineers Museum, Library and Archive in Kent have a number of items of indigenous North American clothing from the 1840s and a large photography collection. Highlights are a coat, bag, gloves and leggings that were presented to the museum by Captain Moody who was stationed at Fort Garry on the Canadian/United States border.

This coat and satchel are typical of items that combine materials and designs of both indigenous North American and European origin. The Métis coats has features commonly found in European military uniform, a straight collar, quilled epaulets, with floral decoration on the lapels and cuffs, and elaborate quillwork ornament on the back. 

Figure 2: [top] Métis coat decorated with quillwork (4201.35.1) [bottom] finger-woven beaded satchel (4201.35.4) c 1840s. Images © Royal Engineers Museum, Library and Archive

The Royal Green Jackets (Rifles) Museum in Winchester has a significant amount of non-European material on display from various campaigns, but from North America they have a powder horn dated 1757 from Fort Edward, New York which belonged to Lieutenant John Longsdon of 3rd Battalion 60th Royal Americans.

The carving of this horn is similar to the one in the military collection here at National Museums Scotland that once belonged to a soldier in the 42nd (Royal Highland) Regiment of Foot, also from New York and dated 1758. Maps, dates, floral patterns, rhymes and names are carved onto the surface of the horn, and we believe this particular style to be the work of an amateur.

Figure 3: [above] Lieut. Longsdon’s powder horn, 1757, For Edward  (2006.1761) Royal Green Jackets (Rifles) Museum [below] Powder Horn, 1758, Lake George (M.1931.581) Image © National Museums Scotland
The most significant thing about these powder horns is the indigenous origin of the straps, which come in different forms. One is quilled and is of the form often described as a prisoner tie, though we are researching this more fully. The other is a burden strap or ‘tumpline’ which military records of the mid 1800s show were issued to light infantry men.

The Fusilier Museum at the Tower of London has a number of photograph albums and diaries which provide a fascinating insight into the Younghusband Mission to Tibet (1903-04) from both a regimental and personal perspective. This compliments a collection of around 40 objects brought back from the campaign.

Figure 4: Pages from ‘Lebong to Lhassa and Back’ album (ARC.2082) Images © The Fusilier Museum
Only seven men from the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Rifles served in the Mission as a machine gun detachment under the command of Lieutenant J. C. Bowen-Colthurst. Despite this, the Royal Ulster Rifles Museum in Belfast has a large album of 450 photographs with a handwritten index, as well as Bowen-Colthurst’s personal scrapbooks and photographs and a bone Cham costume ornament brought back by Colour-Sergeant J. Lyle.

Figure 5: Panoramic images taken by the mission’s official photographer John-Claude White in ‘Views of Thibet’ album (AC.957) Images © Royal Ulster Rifles Museum 
Photographs, scrapbooks and diaries proved to be a common strength of the Younghusband material across the collections surveyed, and significant overlaps were noted. DrClare Harris, Professor of Visual Anthropology and Curator for Asian Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum has already been consulted and with her expertise we want to look further into the mixture of personal, official and commercial prints in these albums, and tease out the particularities of military photography.

All the project’s findings have been collated in a catalogue and for further information please contact any of the project team, details below. We would also be happy to receive any information you may have about regimental collections in your area as we are planning on extending this research to look at material brought back from other locations and campaigns.

Henrietta Lidchi, Keeper, Department of World Cultures 
Rosanna Blakeley, Assistant Curator 
Stuart Allan, Principal Curator, Scottish Late Modern Collections 

Assistant Curator, National Museums Scotland.

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