“Foreign Objects at Home and Away: Mobility and Materiality in Self-Fashioning and Imperial Careering in the Late British Empire, Exploring the Collections at Rudyard Kipling’s English Home”

Arisa Loomba, University of Oxford

This paper begins from a modest two-storey house on a British National Trust estate named ‘Bateman’s’, located in the rolling hills of East Sussex, in south England. Bateman’s was owned by Rudyard Kipling, and was his family home from 1902 until his death in 1936. From the 1880s, Kipling traversed the British Empire and beyond: he travelled, wrote and collected extensively, touching six continents, living in four.

Kipling’s was a quintessential imperial life, but he has generally not been thought of historically as an agent of empire through not only is writing, but also his collecting. Bateman’s, his first and only home in England, had two contradictory functions. Firstly, it provided the Kiplings with a landed estate and a claim to the lineage of a respectable English gentleman, presenting a display to the outside world of Englishness and stability after a life lived across empire. Concurrently, the estate was a waystation, a storage unit of souvenirs and curiosities brought ‘home’ from their exotic travels. Though the house is not presented to visitors today with its ‘curiosities’ at the centre, this paper thinks about self-fashioning and imperial home-making at the turn of the century in terms of material culture and collecting, positioning Kipling’s home space as ethnographic museum.

It takes a material culture approach to interrogating the tensions between the biography of the collection with Kipling such a main character in its story, versus the subversive and multiple biographies of the objects and art works in the collection.

This paper will consider the current presentation of the collection and how it can be read against the grain in decolonial ways to revolutionise the space for new visitors. It asks how whiteness and Europeaness developed through ‘foreign’ objects collected, bought, gifted and inherited through travel and global networks. This rich, fascinating collection holds furniture, art, decor, ornaments and souvenirs ranging from deities and dolls, to snowshoes, to animal claws, skins and teeth, it will trace the currently erased biographies and journeys of the collection. Taking a few objects as case studies, I will explore how to recentre the indigenous voices whose stories are told through the material remains of empire. I seek to consider how we can balance these voices with that of Kipling’s, when we have so little biographical information about how these objects made their way to Sussex and through what means.

How can we construct new memory, of the places and people he ‘encountered’ and the colonial brutality his collection was wrapped up in, working with and through the factual and biographical gaps in Kipling’s archive?

Arisa Loomba did her graduate degree in History at the University of Warwick (2016-2019) and an MSc in Migration Studies at the University of Oxford (2019-2020). She worked as a researcher for history podcasts on the history of slavery and empire at Broccoli Productions prior to starting her DPhil in 2021.

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