Legacies of a colonial collection: James Henry Green’s photos of Burma (Myanmar)

Helen Mears, Keeper of World Art, reflects on the legacies of a colonial collection of photographs: its importance as a record of ethnic histories and use value to Myanmar’s minority communities today. She also discusses recent museum initiatives to record the changing experiences of Kachin people.

James Henry Green (second from left) accompanied by Burmese soldiers and women, c1926

Royal Pavilion & Museums cares for a unique collection of photographs and textiles formed in Myanmar (formerly Burma) in the early 20th century. The collection was created by James Henry Green (1893-1975), a recruiting officer for the Indian Army. Green’s military role involved assessing local people for their potential to serve in the army. Based in northern Myanmar, Green was fascinated by the ethnic diversity he witnessed and used photography as a way of recording the people and places he encountered.

Maru girl, c1926

One of the communities Green documented was the Kachin community, today an umbrella term for six ethnic groups: Jinghpaw, Lawngwaw (Maru, Lhaovo, Lhaovar), Zaiwa (Atsi, Atzi), Nung-Rawang, Lisu and Lachik (La:cid, Lashi). Ongoing conflict in the region since Burma gained independence from British rule means that Green’s photographs have become a precious resource for these groups, who make use of them in their political, social and cultural activities.

You can view and download Green’s photographs from our Digital Media Bank, or view a small sample below.

Kachin lives

Ongoing conflict in northern Myanmar has had a significant impact on Kachin people’s lives. Many people have been forced to move from rural locations to urban ones, and others have left the country in search of safety and greater opportunities overseas. One of the largest overseas communities of Kachin people is in Malaysia, where some 3-4,000 people form part of one of the largest urban refugee populations in the world. I have previously written about the difficulties facing this community on this blog.

Photo of Kachin chiildren dressed in red and black holding baskets covered in white lace
Courtesy Ryan Libre CC BY NC-SA

As well as preserving the items in the Green collection, Royal Pavilion & Museums wishes to document the changing lives of Kachin people. To this end we commissioned photographer Ryan Libre to create a photographic record of the Kachin refugee community living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We are grateful for the assistance of the Malaysia Kachin Baptist Church and the Kachin Refugee Committee in making this possible. Some of these images were used in Life Suspended, a small display in Brighton Museum.

Ryan’s photos can be viewed on Flickr and the graphics from the exhibiton can be downloaded from our Digital Media Bank.

Royal Pavilion & Museums also invited a member of the Malaysia community now living in the United Kingdom to reflect on her experiences. My interview with S Mun Ja, filmed by John Reynolds, can be watched below.

Royal Pavilion & Museums work with the James Henry Green Collection is supported by the James Henry Green Charitable Trust.

Helen Mears, Keeper of World Art

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