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Maria Chiara Scuderi

History, University of Leicester

Thesis title:

Global Leicester: the Dryad Craftwork Collection at Leicester Museum and Art Gallery

My practice-based PhD explores the objects and archives of Leicester Museum and Art Gallery’s Dryad craftworks 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, wooden objects, decorated coconuts, and raw materials. The objects circulated in international exhibitions and missionary expositions between 1907 and 1936, and come from Britain and Eastern Europe as well as British colonies in America, Australia, Africa, Asia and the Pacific. For this reason, 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.

‘Global Leicester’ 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, I explore why and how the collector Harry Peach gathered specific objects, I investigate their provenance and manufacture, how the objects travelled to Leicester, and what 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 national collection of imperial objects. 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 in UK and abroad.

As part of my research, I am working with the collections department at Leicester Museum and Art Gallery to understand the rationale behind the collection. 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, emphasizing aspects related to the global and imperial context in local collecting.

I am currently running an object-focused blog with stories about the Dryad collection www.leicestermuseums.org/news/dryad-collection-introduction  

Research Area

  • History


31/01/2023 (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 (The 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

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

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

Cataloging 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 and raw materials

Social history of art

Material culture of colonial encounter

Museum studies and practice

Imperial collecting and display

Object-based learning


ICOM UK - International Council of Museums 

ICOM - ICME International Committee for Museums and Collections of Ethnography

Museum Ethnographers Group (MEG) 

National Basketry Organization

The Basketmakers' Association

Paul Mellon Centre's Doctoral Researchers Network

University of Leicester Global, Colonial and Postcolonial Research Cluster 

University of Leicester New History Lab

UCU - University and College Union 

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