Fig 1. Marcel Duchamp, Box in Valise, (1935-41)
In 1822, An Englishwoman named Fanny Parkes followed her husband Charles Crawford Parkes to India. Charles, an employee of the East India Company was stationed as a collector of customs at Allahabad. While he was occupied with work, Fanny busied her days by learning Hindi, horse riding and occasionally mingling with Indian women in the Zenana. Just as she was beginning to settle down, her husband was posted to Kanpur (‘Cawnpore’ in those days) which was a rather dull environment compared to what she was used to. So she took to travelling on her own and exploring India. Everywhere she went, she documented her travels that later were published into a book- Wanderings Of a Pilgrim, In search Of The Picturesque, During Four and Twenty Years In The East. In the book, she not only writes about her experiences meeting different people but she also describes her encounters with different objects which soon became a part of her collection. In her meetings with various dignitaries such as the King of Oudh she was often presented with textiles such as ‘Cashmere shawls, muslin and kimkhwab, or cloth of gold.’ She speaks of how in her own capacity she would go about collecting objects, often without knowing its purpose in society. One time, she wore a coral necklace that she found at a fair that was meant to be worn by horses! She also bought a shawl with large flowers on it (some kind of Chintz) which was commonly worn by lower caste women. Being an outsider, she had the liberty to collect objects across social strata in Indian society.
These assorted items became a part of her larger ‘empire of objects’ that she eventually took back to England when her husband fell ill. As a way to re-establish herself in England, a land that she felt she didn’t belong to, Fanny Parkes used her collection of objects to position herself as a scholar of the ‘exotic’, a woman of knowledge. Curiosity cabinets, known as ‘Wunderkammer’ in Germany and ‘Stanzino’ in Italy, were gaining popularity in England. However, Fanny Parkes was one of the few women in her time to establish a cabinet of curiosities for the public to see.
These curio collections were placed in cupboards in which people placed items of the world. Unlike a museum, the objects in the cabinet were placed together in a hotchpotch with no curation in mind; somewhere between scientific evidence to objects of amusement. For Fanny Parkes, her curiosity cabinet was an amalgamation of all the objects she instinctively took a liking to. While they were considered ‘exotic’ items, they were also objects that she soon became familiar with, transforming them into mementos of remembrance to the life she lived in India; independent and adventurous.
Capturing another world in her home in England , these objects were a way of preserving a persona of herself that she couldn’t freely live in her own home. Though enclosed in a cupboard, their far away origin and uniqueness became an escape for Fanny Parkes to live her free spirited life in tandem with her role as a British aristocratic lady.
Bennett, Tony. The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics. London: Routledge, 1995. Digital.
Finn, Margot and Kate Smith. The East India Company ,1757-1857. London: UCL Press, 2018. Digital.
Parkes, Fanny, Wanderings Of a Pilgrim, In search Of The Picturesque, During Four and Twenty Years In The East. London: Gilbert and Rivingston Printers,1850. Digital
Written by Rukmini Swaminathan.
Rukmini is a researcher at The Registry of Sarees. She is interested in textile, design and architecture history and hopes to explore her interests through these journal entries.