A Uni Research Profile: Second Cities of Empire

Published

Researcher

Credit: Jeremiah Sim

Savannah Stark
Writer

Savannah Stark explores some of the research happening on campus

Museums offer a window into history. A window that provides depth to the past while also reflecting the present and identity of the viewer. While treading through Glasgow museums we often do not think about what happens behind the scenes; how collections are chosen and exhibited. For that, we have researchers and experts that can translate history to the public.

Lydia Murtezaoglu is one such researcher at the University of Glasgow delving into museum collections to gather information on British Imperialism in India and the influence of trade and cultural exchange on Scottish and British identity. Lydia is in her second year of her PhD in the College of the Arts and the Department of English Literature and History. Her Leverhulme Trust funded research is part of a broad collaborative project of doctoral students studying historical and contemporary collections. The multidisciplinary research group aims to work laterally across subjects to enrich student and public education in the art of collecting.

An interest in India and the British Empire first started after Lydia visited Sri Lanka and enjoyed the culture and experience. She looked for PhD projects related to public history online and eventually found a proposal that related to her interests. Identifying as half Turkish influenced the appeal of researching hybridized British and Scottish identity and how contact with other cultures affects the way identity is formed. She describes her experience, “I never feel more English or British than when I’m in Turkey because you feel very different. Whereas here I feel half Turkish all the time. Even being in Scotland, I say I’m British, not English.” The collaborative nature of the Leverhulme Trust funded collections group also attracted Lydia to Glasgow because of the opportunity to learn from fellow student’s research while contextualizing her own.

Rather than looking at a specific museum collection, Lydia is analyzing the history of collecting itself; how specific pieces are chosen for a museum or private collection. Ports played an important role during the colonial period in the cultural and material exchanges. Glasgow and Calcutta are considered “Second Cities” of the Empire, which refers to the economic and societal importance they held. Lydia is delving into the cultural exchange between the two second cities to see what is present in public and private collections. Her investigation aims to analyze how the collections that resulted from contact with India reflect and influence Glaswegian, Scottish, and British identity.

Thus far, getting started was the hardest part, but presenting at the Second Cities conference last year in Glasgow was rewarding. She gained a lot from the supportive questions she received from other experts in Academia. As far as research goes, “when you actually have something that you’re not expecting, that’s the best thing!” While looking through archives, Lydia came across a museum label for an Indian pipe, the same type of pipe Sherlock Holmes smokes in the novels. The pipe from Bengal came from an 1888 exhibition and provides a piece of evidence of museum work that goes behind the collection of artefacts.

To get a full perspective on this cultural exchange, Lydia is travelling to Calcutta to research the other side. She plans to go to the Indian museum and an international exhibit. She emphasizes how flexible you must be with a PhD, “you can say, ‘well, I know what I’m doing.’ That’s the thing about research, it can change so quickly.” The subject is broad and there is little literature on what she is investigating, so she will travel there and let the exhibition and art lead her studies and narrow her scope.

In the end, she’s hoping to create a database of all the pieces in public and private collections in Glasgow. If any researcher or avid learner in the future wants to look up an art piece or artefact, they can use the database to see what museums and private collectors have in the region. Local museums have been working to reach out to many of the international communities in Glasgow to make sure that there is documentation of all the cultural exchange that has occurred with other countries and people that have immigrated to the UK. With a background in Public History, Lydia says her research also “lends itself well to an exhibition” because it expands on the information museums already display to the public. Educating the public acknowledges and highlights Glasgow’s history and narrative of cultural exchange with India.

Receiving a doctorate will allow Lydia to scale up her credentials for working in public television, “by the end of it, the whole point is you’ll be the world expert on your niche topic.” Before she came to Glasgow, she worked for a children’s TV program that gives fun lessons on history. She was assigned to research certain topics and gather information on concepts for the program. However, a PhD will give her the chance to write for the show and make the decisions on content. But she is keeping her mind open to all the possibilities for a future career. She said, “There are so many things I don’t know about what I’m going to do, but I know a lot more than I did a year ago.”
As Lydia states, her research “is all about making people think, where do our identities come from? It’s about looking outwards rather than always looking inwards.” We can learn about ourselves by thinking about how other cultures have influenced our own identity as well as others around us. The research on campus is also crucial to forming the identity of the University of Glasgow. As students, we are shaped by our experiences on campus, our role in this multicultural community, and what we learn in our courses and research.