From the cathedral-like Natural History Museum to the cutting-edge Tate Modern, London’s museums are among the most visited and renowned in the world. One important institution, however, that has been virtually eradicated from the city’s memory is the extensive and eccentric Museum of India that attracted large crowds during the nineteenth century.

This museum existed for sixty years from 1798. It was located in ‘East India House’ in Leadenhall Street, the headquarters of the East India Company: the infamous organization founded to facilitate trade with Southeast Asia that also laid the foundations for the British Raj.

Victorian visitors to the Museum gazed in awe at the intricate ivory carvings, jewel-inlaid daggers and spears, gorgeous fabrics, rugs and carpets. A popular magazine of the time, The Leisure Hour, describes how a ‘dazzling exhibition’ of gold-embroidered cloaks, cashmere shawls and silk handkerchiefs provoked female visitors into ‘convulsive raptures’. The same source recalls attendees marveling at the bizarre multitude of models: a replica of the tomb of the founder of the Sikh Empire Runjeet Singh; an effigy of the Muslim ruler Nawab Schurff smoking a hookah; miniature recreations of a courthouse and a rajah’s wedding ceremony; plaster imitations of apples, pears and pines; and thousands of models of ordinary Indian people―‘clad, or half-clad, or unclad’―cooking, conjuring, digging, exercising, juggling, snake-charming and weaving.

Museumgoers also admired the full-length portrait of the Persian ruler Nadir Shah; the inscribed slab memorializing the reign of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II (famous for constructing the city’s legendary Hanging Gardens and demolishing Jerusalem’s temple); the numerous ‘Amarvati sculptures’ from Southern India; a sword once deployed by the chief executioner of the Sri Lankan monarchy; and ‘Tipu’s Tiger’, a life-sized model of a European man being devoured by a tiger.

This latter exhibit particularly enraptured the Victorian imagination. It was made for Tipu Sultan, the south Indian military ruler who battled the East India Company. When he was defeated in 1799, the artifact was sent back as a trophy. The tiger was Tipu’s military emblem, symbolizing his desire to defeat and devour the British invaders: his armory included mortars shaped like sitting tigers, cannons with tiger muzzles and hand weapons adorned with tiger heads. If you turned a handle on the side of Tipu’s tiger an organ was exposed that, when played, prompted the man to moan and lift his arms up and down in the air as if being eaten.

According to accounts of the time, the organ so fascinated museum visitors that the ‘shrieks and growls’ of the European ‘were the constant plague of the student busy at work in the Library of the old India House’. The devouring Bengal tiger became a familiar representation of Indian resistance in British caricatures of the time. The Governor-General of the East India Company, Richard Wellesley described the object as ‘a memorial of the arrogance and barbarous cruelty’ of Tipu. Yet the popularity of this artefact reveals a vein of sadomasochism within British museumgoers themselves. Partly, the exhibit fascinated them because it placed them in the disconcerting position of victim not master. Tipu’s tiger exposed often-unspoken feelings of British vulnerability in relation to its empire, even providing a disturbing mirror image of the barbarity of the British Empire at that time.

When the museum was dissolved in 1858, this was not because more enlightened views had prevailed. Rather, the 1857 Indian Rebellion against British East India sent shockwaves across the Empire, causing the British to harden their attitudes against India and replace East India Company control with direct rule under the Crown. The East India House was demolished in 1861 and its eccentric collection was eventually dispersed across the British museum, Kew Gardens, the Natural History museum and the Victoria and Albert museum.

While it is easy to condemn the museum as a bastion of Imperialism, the truth is more complex. Visitors may have been attracted to the more sensationalistic exhibits, they were also astonished by the artistry on display, which stunned them into shame about their own ignorance of India. The Leisure House surmised: ‘we gaze with surprise and wonder at their industrial miracles…their unaccountable perseverance in minute and laborious undertakings, and of their unrivalled skill in such masterpieces of patience and manual dexterity; but of the Indian people—the power that produces these astonishing results—we know nothing, or next to nothing’. After the 1857 Rebellion, however, such admiration and curiosity was replaced with outright hostility and the museum was demolished and obliterated from the city’s memory.

On the spot on which the India Museum was located now stands the infamous ‘inside-out’ post-modern Lloyds Building that opened in 1986, encapsulating the capital’s embrace of postmodern architecture and deregulated finance. A fitting symbol, we might observe, of how the city has reinvented itself from nineteenth-century imperial center to twenty-first century global financial hub, renewing itself in order to preserve its preeminence with the efficiency of a snake shedding a skin.

The museum’s virtual erasure from London’s history mirrors a broader British amnesia about Empire. Just as few Londoners know about the former India collection so British India or the Opium Wars or African colonization and decolonization are not taught in detail in British schools and receive somewhat rose-tinted representation on the rare occasions when they are presented in British television or film. Despite this, the events of these eras provide a foundation for the modern multicultural nation and its overseas relations. In like manner, although the museum is largely forgotten, the Nebuchadnezzar II inscription and the Amarvati sculptures are central artefacts in the British Museum. Likewise, although the handle of Tipu’s Tiger is now broken, you can see this macabre object in the Victoria and Albert Museum, providing a lurid reminder of gruesome and shameful aspects of London’s past.

Anonymous, The Leisure Hour: Volume VII, Thursday July 29 1858 No. 344 pp. 469-73.
Anonymous, The Athenaeum, June 5 1869, p. 766.
Anonymous, The St. James’ Chronicle, April 1800. Quoted in Susan Stronge, Tipu’s Tigers, Victoria and Albert Museum (London: V and A Publishing, 2009) p. 62.
Anonymous, The Leisure Hour: Volume VII, Thursday July 29 1858 No. 344 pp. 469-73.