Victoria, Empress of India: A poetic exploration at Kensington Palace

Museums around the world are focusing on innovative ways of community-engagement and involvement. Here's a look at how the Historic Royal Palaces actively sought voices from the South Asian community while planning a key exhibit around the bicentenary of Queen Victoria's birth.

2019 marks the 200th birth anniversary of Queen Victoria and has been a significant year for Historic Royal Palaces. It brought us the opportunity to address an important story at Kensington Palace. To commemorate the event, Historic Royal Palaces created a brand new exhibition, Victoria: Woman & Crown, to explore the life and reign of the famous monarch at Kensington Palace. The exhibition examines her later life and legacy as well as aiming to portray a multi-faceted representation of the Queen.

Victoria – Empress Of India

When most people think of Queen Victoria, a small frumpy woman dressed entirely in black comes to mind. She was of course more than that, she was a stateswoman, wife, mother, grandmother of Europe and Empress of India. The concept of Queen Victoria as the Empress of India is one of the key themes presented within the exhibition. In 1877, Benjamin Disraeli, Conservative Prime Minister, had Queen Victoria proclaimed as Empress of India. India was already under crown control after 1858, but this title was a gesture to link the British monarchy with the empire further and bind India more closely to Britain.

Queen Victoria Kensington Palace museum community engagement
Community group exploring objects with HRP Curator, Polly Putnam, in the store at Hampton Court Palace as part of the community engagement project for the Victoria: Woman and Crown 2019 exhibition at Kensington Palace

In order to present a nuanced and complex account of the Queen, Historic Royal Palaces incorporated participatory practice throughout the planning and development of the exhibition.

Queen Victoria Kensington Palace museum community engagement

We worked collaboratively with members of the local South Asian community to respond creatively to the narrative, key themes and objects featured in the exhibition. This provided a prime opportunity to make the Palace relevant and meaningful to it’s surrounding communities as well as bringing a diverse range of voices and perspectives to the forefront of the exhibition narrative.

Queen Victoria Kensington Palace museum community engagement
Two major new exhibitions at Kensington Palace have opened to mark the 200th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s birth on 24 May 1819. ‘Victoria: Woman and Crown’ explores Victoria’s life as a young woman and her roles as queen, wife, mother and empress. ‘Victoria: A Royal Childhood’ explores the story of Princess Victoria, the young girl destined to be queen, in the rooms where she was born and raised at Kensington Palace. Over 300 objects are on show, including rare surviving pieces from Victoria’s wardrobe.

Historic Royal Palaces worked with an intergenerational group of local South Asian community members as well as students from a range of London universities studying South Asian culture and language, to develop a series of text labels in the form of ghazals (a form of poetry popular within the Indian subcontinent and diaspora community).

Over the course of six sessions, participants had the opportunity to visit the object stores at Hampton Court Palace, learn more about Queen Victoria with historian Dr Priya Atwal and create their contemporary responses to the exhibition objects with poet Jaspreet Kaur (Behind The Netra).

Dr. Priya Atwal specialises in history of empire, monarchy & migration across Britain/South Asia (esp. Sikhs/Punjabis)

Community Engagement : Project Contributor Thoughts

Below are thoughts and reflections from a project participant about the objects they chose
and the poem they created.

I chose to focus on the portrait of the Princess Gowramma of Coorg. For me the portrait was beautiful yet so sad. The Manusmriti coined the quote: ‘The essence of being a Hindu woman is to suffer with grace’ – for me the portrait was a visual depiction of that line. I was inspired by the confusion of identity she must have felt. No longer Hindu but never fully English either. Being mixed race myself I feel that confusion almost daily and it’s not nice. Her being so confused and scared but still doing as she’s told and doing it gracefully strikes a chord with me…

Queen Victoria Kensington Palace museum community engagement
Engraving depicting The Princess Victoria Gouramma of Coorg, 1865. The Princess was the daughter of the ex-Raja of Coorg. She was baptised in the chapel at Buckingham Palace in July 1852 and took the name ‘Victoria’, with Queen Victoria as her sponsor. She is depicted here in Indian dress and elaborate jewellery, holding a Bible, a reference to her conversion to Christianity. © Historic Royal Palaces

“Who am I? में कौन हूँ
Indian? English?
No longer Hindu, she made me Christian
Did anyone ask me?
No, I must do as she says, smile
And keep भारत inside.”

“I was honestly pleasantly surprised by how honest HRP wanted us to be about Empire – no matter how negative our responses could potentially be.”

Poem & comments by: Indira Varma

Historic Royal Palaces has had a history of working collaboratively with community groups. However this project enabled us to develop content for an exhibition and as a result has helped support a wider range of external voices which have been embedded within the interpretation and contributed to a rich, multi-dimensional narrative. This approach has
allowed us to meaningfully connect with local communities, reinforcing a key strand of our charitable mission to widen its reach amongst diverse audiences. The results of the group’s work are currently on display throughout the exhibition at Kensington Palace.

‘Victoria: Woman & Crown’ is open daily at Kensington Palace
until 05 January 2020.

Click here for more information about the exhibition

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Jatinder Kailey
Jatinder Kailey
Jatinder Kailey’s interests focuses on the heritage and museums sector’s relationship with communities. Jatinder has previously worked on a public art and archives exhibition, No Colour Bar, as well as having worked on spoken word poetry projects with men in prison at HMP Wandsworth and the surrounding local community. She is currently working as a Community Assistant Producer at Historic Royal Palaces.

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