The British Museum is one of the most prominent museums in the world, known for a wide range of collections dedicated to human history and culture. This summer, Lauren Scutt ’16 worked to improve one of those collections through an internship with the Museum’s Beyond Boundaries: Religion, Region, Language and the State project.
With support from the Richard ’44 and Patsy Couper Fund, she worked to catalogue and publish archival information about the Mahabodhi temple in Bodhgaya, India, the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment and a place of immense religious and cultural importance for centuries.
This internship was not Scutt’s first experience cataloguing information about important historical sites. As a part of the Digital Humanities Initiative’s CLASS Scholar program at Hamilton, she worked with Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Abhishek Amar on his Sacred Centers in India project. This involved working on a digital archive of information about sacred sites in Gaya and Bodhgaya.
The experience provided her with valuable skills in analyzing and cataloguing historical data, and she planned to build on those skills this summer.
Amar connected her with Dr. Michael Willis at the British Museum, who needed cataloguing help for Beyond Boundaries. As a January admit to Hamilton, Scutt spent her first semester studying in London and was thrilled to return to the city for her internship.
The Beyond Boundaries project that Scutt joined is part of the British Museum’s Department of Asia. One of the project’s goals is to assess the evolution of the Mahabodhi temple in Bodhgaya. Scutt said the temple has a rich history of re-appropriation as religion evolved in Asia. She worked with parts of the archive of archaeologist Sir Alexander Cunningham, a collection of photographs and drawings of the temple site from Cunningham’s team in the 19th century.
The Beyond Boundaries project is organizing these records into a coherent sequence for the first time.
Scutt’s primary job was to catalogue the photographs and drawings and create a digital archive of Cunningham’s collection. This involved studying the photographs, recording inscriptions found at the site, digitizing the collection’s items, recording key information about the documents, and creating online records. As she catalogued the records, she learned a lot about how to reconstruct history from site observations.
Scutt explained, “By studying the photographs, I developed an understanding of how shifting architectural styles provide clues of the site’s development and influence.” She also found it rewarding to contribute to the advancement of historical knowledge, saying she enjoyed “discovering new things and sharing it with the rest of the world. Our discoveries are now available to the public and hopefully will change the way scholars think about Bodhgaya and more broadly the history of religion in South East Asia.”
Scutt took advantage of her time at the British Museum to appreciate the impressive collections. Some of her favorite items were the mummies in the Egyptian galleries and centuries-old clocks in The Sir Harry and Lady Djanogly Gallery. Occasionally, Dr. Williss would take Scutt and her fellow intern into the museum’s basement to see some of the artifacts not on display.
She commented, “The sheer amount of objects the museum owns is amazing. Very few people are able to see these artifacts and I am very lucky to have been behind the scenes.”
Overall, her internship at the British Museum impressed Scutt with both the challenge and importance of constructing historical narratives. “Designing exhibitions and galleries requires mastery of a subject, but also creativity to make the exhibit both appealing to the public while remaining informative,” she said.
“Using only space and objects to express complex ideas involves finding connections between ancient and modern society.” Scutt found this work very stimulating and is interested in becoming a curator herself one day.