Exhibition: An ‘Industrial Museum’ – John Forbes Watson’s Indian Textile Collection

John Forbes Watson's Indian Textile Collection

Exhibition dates: 12 August 2013 – 20 January 2014

John Forbes Watson (1827–1892) was born in Scotland and trained as a physician in London and Paris. He traveled to India in the Bombay Army Medical Service in 1850 and lived there for three years. Upon returning to London, he published a catalogue of the plant life native to India and was soon named Director of the India Museum. During his relatively brief stay there, he clearly developed a keen interest in the welfare of India, which translated to his lifelong mission to promote and develop the native Indian industries, as well as trade between the Indian subcontinent, the British Isles, and other global markets.

The textile samples preserved in the volumes on display represent the second such group that Watson compiled. The first group was published in 1866, along with a supplementary volume with details about textile manufacture in India, local and regional tastes, and costumes. Watson pointed out that some fabrics could be made more cheaply by British factories using mechanized means, while others, such as the gossamer light cotton muslins, could not be reproduced satisfactorily by Western weavers; these still required the traditional hand skills of the Indian thread makers and weavers. He called these sample books “Industrial Museums” or “Trade Museums,” because they were portable collections intended to inspire the textile manufacturers of both the British Isles and India. While Watson’s cataloguing efforts were later criticized as being unscientific, these collections nevertheless preserve in compact form a dazzling array of textiles made in the Indian subcontinent during the second half of the nineteenth century.

For more information, visit the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


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