Working with the Royal Asiatic Society’s Collections

Yesterday evening (Thursday 23rd March) we held a Collections Evening. This is one of the highlights of the year for the Collections Team, librarian, Edward Weech, and myself, Nancy Charley, archivist. The Collections Evening gives us the opportunity to invite people who have been working with the Collections to talk about how items in the collections have benefitted their research or how, by working with the collections, they’re increasing their accessibility and providing us with more detailed understanding. We are also able to display some of the collections in the Reading Room.


Collections on display including some of the manuscripts highlighted in our digitisation sponsorship appeal

This time we invited three speakers. Firstly, Dr Funda Şan joined us from Istanbul, via Zoom. Funda is a researcher at Yildiz Technical University, who recently completed a year-long research project supported by TUBITAK (The Scientific and Technological Research Institution of Turkey). This was devoted to the Society’s important but hitherto understudied Turkish manuscript collection. Funda shared some of the insights and discoveries from her work with these manuscripts and  how the Society’s collection relates to the wider terrain of Ottoman and Turkish manuscript culture.

Dr Funda Şan

Funda was followed by Ruth Westoby, a doctoral candidate at SOAS, who is preparing a thesis on the yogic body in early haṭha yoga. Ruth has been researching the Society’s manuscript of the 1363 Śārṅgadharapaddhati (RAS Tod 32), as part of an Arts and Humanities Research Council doctoral training programme placement. Ruth shared with us her findings concerning the yoga portions of the text and her preliminary thesis about their inclusion within the Śārṅgadharapaddhati.


Ruth Westoby

Finally, Evgenia North, a professional graphic designer, shared with us some of the discoveries she’s made whilst working with our photographic collections. Evgenia volunteers digitizing the photographs to make them available on our Digital Library. She has already digitised some stunning 1930s photographs of Tibet that form part of the Fleming Mackenzie Collection and has also helped us identify the photographer of another collection as being Antoin Sevruguin. This, she achieved, post-digitisation by enlarging the images and discovering his signature in Cyrillic. The photos are now correctly identified as being from Iran. Evgenia is in today working on some architectural photographs of India, which will also shortly be added to the Digital Library.


Evgenia North

We would like to thank each of our speakers who gave up their time to share their findings about, and fascination with, items within our Collections. It has been good to see more researchers returning to the Reading Room accessing, in some cases, material that has only recently been acquired or catalogued. Others, we know, are making use of the increasing quantity of material available online through the Digital Library. Evgenia is one of several volunteers working with us at present. They make such a difference to the amount of material we can more easily make accessible via their conserving, cataloguing and digitising activities. Roger Parsons is our longest-standing volunteer having begun when the Society was still housed at 56 Queen’s Gardens. Roger has undertaken a range of projects for the Society, including overhauling our journal exchanges, listing the papers of Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson and, in recent years, cataloguing the books. His consistent efforts mean that the majority of the Society’s books are now listed on the online catalogue: this includes all our standard-sized books, journals, and pamphlets, but also about half our oversized books.

Also long-serving, are our volunteers from the Arts Society, who come monthly to repair and conserve our books. We are grateful to Fenny Green, Chris Ashdown and Martyn Duncumb. They often work with some of our dirtiest and most damaged collections – but still keep coming back! Along with Evgenia, we have two other more recent volunteers. Jake Todd is interested in pursuing a career in heritage. A history graduate with an MA in European Studies. Jake has a special interest in Ottoman heritage. He has already undertaken a number of projects including cataloguing a collections of slides depicting Iraq and the Marsh Arabs and cataloguing the Papers of John Dowson and John Edye.

A letter from the Papers of John Dowson.

Jake has just begun to work through a collection of slides which belonged to Godfrey Goodwin, an historian of Ottoman architecture. We are looking forward to this significant collection becoming more accessible.

Matt McKenzie, owner of Paekakariki Press, is currently volunteering with us while he undertakes the distance-learning MA in Archival Studies with Dundee University. Matt is the archivist for the Wynken de Worde Society and is looking to increase his skillset to manage that archive, the one of Paekakariki Press, and to pursue his interest in the publisher Edward Lloyd. Matt, too, has already completed a number of cataloguing projects including the Papers of Charles Philip Brown and John Massey Stewart and the Royal Asiatic Society’s Governance: Charter and Rules. This week he began work on another set of Personal Papers which we hope to add to the catalogue in due course.

We are so grateful for all these volunteers as Edward and I strive to make the collections increasingly accessible. More and more of the Society’s historic collections are now catalogued and, as we continue to accession new material, we seek for this material to be made known and available too. Volunteers play a significant part in that process, as do long term researchers such as Funda and Ruth, who help increase our understanding of how items in our collections fit into wider scholarship. So a BIG THANK YOU TO YOU ALL.

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The next event at the Society is this coming Tuesday, 28 March, when in conjunction with the Levantine Heritage Foundation, we welcome Dr Gemma Masson, Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, to lecture on ‘Upstairs, Downstairs: British Diplomatic Travellers in 18th Century Istanbul’. Full details can be found here and if you would like to attend, please book via eventbrite. A zoom link can be obtained from Matty Bradley (