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Maria Chiara Scuderi

History, University of Leicester

Thesis title:

Unpacking the Dryad 'Handicrafts' collection: toward a global network of relationships for Leicester

My object-based PhD explores the objects and archives of Leicester Museum and Art Gallery’s Dryad ‘Handicrafts’ collection, with the aim to illuminate what linkages with the global and imperial context this new material culture history can reveal, and how it relates to museum studies and practice today. The collection is extremely diverse in manufacture and global in scope, ranging from basketry to textiles, carved wooden objects, and raw materials, and comes from ex British colonies in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, as well as from Eastern Europe. It was purchased by Harry Peach of Leicester between 1918 and 1936 in missionary exhibitions, Empire expositions, international shows, and from his substantial network of relationships of field collectors. The rationale of the collection was educational: to provide good examples of ‘handicrafts’ from the world for the local School of Art, and to develop practice-based education by circulating the objects and related instructional leaflets in classes around Britain. With this end, the idea was to improve the educational system in the country, encouraging the formation of a new generation of designers capable to consider objects of foreign cultures in raw materials for a better national trade. For these reasons, the collection represents a case study to examine global and colonial collecting at the beginning of the twentieth century, and how contemporary exhibitions fostered European imperial culture and concepts of nationalism.

“Unpacking the Dryad ‘Handicrafts’ collection” seeks to generate substantial new research to explore what the Dryad collection reveals about the linkages between Leicester and Empire, and about changing understandings of Empire over the twentieth century. With a networking approach, my scope is to investigate collecting strategies and practices for the Dryad ‘Handicrafts’ collection: why and how the collector gathered specific objects? What is their provenance and manufacture? What do their past curation and display say about changing post-colonial environments and relationships?

The project will contribute to three key areas of historical enquiry. First, it will offer a new material culture history of the British Empire, through analysis of a little-known but voluminous and important global and colonial collection of objects (ca2,000 items). Second, it will offer a means of changing current meanings and interpretations of the Dryad objects, by foregrounding the history of Empire in their development and interpretation. Third, it will build on and contribute to the dynamic field of global material culture history and histories of imperial collecting and display, by tracking a diverse and understudied collection through its hitherto unused set of archives.

As part of my research, I work with the collections department at Leicester Museum and Art Gallery. New insights will bring a different perspective on the use and interpretation of the Dryad objects today, encouraging good practice based on the history of the collection, and considering matters of mission and cultural value within the institution. The aim is to give new light and life to the objects, which are kept in storage. The final outcome will be not only the thesis, but also an exhibition on – and with – the Dryad collection of basketry, emphasising aspects related to the global and imperial context in local collecting.

Research Area

  • History


07/03/2024 (Exhibiting Cultures, The University of Birmingham): Missionary Exhibitions as Object-Lessons for Imperial Propaganda: the Case of Other Lands in Leicester.

31/01/2024 Guest lecture at the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester (Engaging Audiences, MU7017): Unpacking the Dryad 'Handicrafts' collection: towards a global movement of 'arts and crafts'.

26/10/2023 (The Backstage View: a Mundane History of Collecting, The University of Poznan): Missionary exhibitions as mundane sites for private collections: the case of Dryad 'Handicrafts'.

17/10/2023 (Increase Visibility and Attractiveness of Islands' Heritage: a 21st Century Issue for Museology, International Conference jointly organised by ICOFOM - International Committee for Museology, AMEPNC - Association of Museums and Heritage Institutions in New Caledonia, and the University of New Caledonia): The insular colonial factor in the Dryad basketry Collection.

15/09/2023 (The 3rd Conference of The European Association for Asian Art and Archaeology, The University of Ljubljana): Intertwining asian cultures: baskets from the Dryad 'Handicrafts' collection at Leiecester Museum and Art Gallery.

31/01/2023 (Cultural History Workshop, The University of Cambridge): 'Let us remember that our motto is "educate, educate, educate"': missionary exhibitions as object-lessons for imperial propaganda.

02/04/2022 (Global Leicester History Festival, De Montfort University): Global Leicester: the Dryad 'Handicrafts' collection at Leicester Museum and Art Gallery.

11/12/2020 (online): Harry Peach: Life and Legacy.

25/08/2020 (online): The University of Leicester Sikh Manuscript in 3D.

Public Engagement & Impact

Teaching assistant 'Heritage Specialisms' Module (MU7020). The School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester.

Co-convenor of the conference "National identity and exhibition histories: from fin-de-siècle world's fairs to contemporary art biennials", on the 'exhibitionary culture' between 19th-20th century.

Co-convenor of the seminar series "Culture, Things and Empire" , on global and colonial material culture and its circulation.

The Univesrity of Cambridge's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology blog "I am writing this waiting for the pageant to begin"

The British Library's 'Untold Lives' blog post The 1914 United Missionary Exhibition "Other Lands in Leicester": a global and colonial aspiration

Cataloguing the Dryad basketry collection at Leicester Museum and Art Gallery.

Cataloguing the Dryad Library Collection at the Archives and Special Collections of the David Wilson Library, University of Leicester.

Research volunteer for the University of Leicester Heritage Project 'So That They May Have Life' (2020/2021).

Other Research Interests

Exhibition histories 

European imperial culture

Basketry - techniques, patterns, materials

History of photography

Material culture of colonial encounter

Museum studies and practice

Imperial collecting and display

Object-based methodology


ICOM UK - International Council of Museums 

ICOM - ICOFOM International Committee for Museology

ICOM - ICME International Committee for Museums and Collections of Ethnography

European Association for Asian Art and Archaeology (EAAA)

Giancarlo Ligabue Foundation

The Basketmakers' Association

Paul Mellon Centre's Doctoral Researchers Network

University of Leicester Global, Colonial and Postcolonial Research Cluster 

Academic Qualifications

2018-2019: MA 'Art Museum and Gallery Studies' - University of Leicester (Distinction).

2013-2016: MA 'Art History' - Ca' Foscari, University of Venice (110/110).

2009-2013: BA 'Art History and Conservation of Cultural Heritage' - Roma Tre University (107/110).

Scholarships and Prizes

College of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities Masters Excellence Scholarship.

Research grant from The Centre for English Local History