Object handlingStories from
the collection

The communities team is always working to create interest, debate and engagement with the Museum collection. Working with people from all over Camden, we wanted to find out what objects in the collection mean to them. The result is a fascinating series of insights into objects that might appear quite ordinary at first - but can say a great deal about our daily lives, experiences and memories.

Object handling at the British Museum


A basket

David, National Coalition for Black Volunteering
Suruk, Bengali Men's Group

David: This is a very, very important object. They come in all sizes, small, big. This is portable. We don’t have ‘boxes’ but we have containers. Everything goes into this, anything at all. This is it – it’s all there…very, very, very handy! We use this very, very much. It's our box, our carrier, our anything at all!

Suruk: Back home, if a snake bites you there are still people today who could come and remove the poison straight away.


Two years ago, when I was back home, a big snake kept coming and catching things like small chickens, so they called in the snake charmer, and it took him about an hour, but the big snake came out. It worked! And then you put the snake in one of those baskets, and you take it away.

Back home, when people have nothing to do, they make baskets or mats or something. For three or four months each year, during the monsoon season, women and men have little to do because they can’t travel, so they sit and make baskets and mats with the raffia and the bamboo.

A basket like this, you can use it for anything.



A kettle

Sofina, Bengali Men's Group
Tasneem, Coram

Tasneem: This reminds me of my youth, I mean really – I looked at it and thought, ‘Oh my God! They’ve got the kettle!’

Whenever we used to go home during Eid (we have two Eids and during Eid al-Adha, when we slaughter an animal in the name of Allah) we used to go to the village where my grandparents lived. It is a very long way and we had to travel by ferry boat.

I can remember first thing in the morning when we used to go and the ‘chai waller’ (the ‘tea man’). He used to come and sell tea in this [the kettle], already made. You’re travelling all day and the tea was so beautiful, much better than you’d do at home. So it reminded me of that.


Sofina: This kind of kettle was in everybody’s home to make tea.

Tasneem: And it is still around now, if you go to the bus stops in the terminals, you will see little lads selling ‘du tucker, du tucker, chai, chai’. They are selling tea and they have small glasses. In Kolkata they have tumblers, clay tumblers, where you can have your tea and then throw it away. In Bangladesh, you would have small glasses and the sellers have a bucket of water and they clean the cups in the bucket.

Also, you’d have a bigger version of this and it was always on the stove, the water was always on the boil so that people could take baths or showers or whatever.


A fan

A fan

Habib, The Bridge Project

Habib: This west African fan, we have exactly the same [in Bangladesh] but in different shapes and sizes. This is made out of reed. We also have this kind of thing for covering the bed, to make it cooler. The connection is that we use this for cooling us down in hot weather.


It attracted me because we use roughly the same things – or things with the same purpose – which is to cool your head down when you are a little bit under the weather!

But who really cares for these things now? I have just come back from Bangladesh and every other building, it seems, has air conditioning!


Oil lamp

An oil lamp

Abdul Noor and Sofina, Bengali Men's Group
Habib, The Bridge Project

Abdul Noor: This kind of item can be used with paraffin, but in the times when paraffin wasn’t around people still burnt lamps like this, but with fish oil. There are lots of fish back home so they would collect the oil from fresh fish and burn it in the lamps.

Habib: This reminds me of my childhood. I don’t know where this exact one originated but this is not Aladdin’s wonderful lamp, this is a very crude lamp made from an old milk can. In Bangladesh when I was a child – I’m from a poor family – my mother had one, there were two of these in the kitchen, which used to be a separate, small sort of house.


In Bangladesh when I was a child – I’m from a poor family – my mother had one, there were two of these in the kitchen, which used to be a separate, small sort of house.

These are made by people in the market, they tend just to use thick tin plates to make them, but this one is made from recycled tin which is much more innovative. And we didn’t use industrially made wick like this one, we used recycled cotton.

I am a bit surprised that it has found its way into the British Museum!


Pestle and mortar

A pestlet and mortar

Sofina, Bengali Men's Group

In my country this is called a ‘siya’. There should be a base with it and you crush your garlic and ginger and your spices with it. You can make chutney, mango chutney, you can do anything with it…it's very useful. It has actually disappeared a bit. Obviously going back twenty years ago, every house had one, everybody crushed their spices by hand. But there are factories now, you can buy it already prepared.



It was also used to make medicine. Lime and syrup (sugar cane) were crushed together if you cut your hand or finger to stop the bleeding. Tumeric, that’s used as an antiseptic. In the olden days, back home, doctors would make the medicine up in front of you.


Prayer hat

A prayer hat

Abdul Hannan and Sofina, Bengali Men's Group

Sofina: This is a traditional hat that men wear for prayer. It goes back a long time – our prophet used to put it on so there is an obligation to wear this when praying. It is recognised in all Muslim countries.



Abdul Hannan: The colour is for boys, young boys. It encourages them to wear it. This one has been handmade. Someone has spent a lot of time making this.

Sofina: This has definitely been made by a women, it has a very fine finishing to it. She must have been very talented.


A sword handle?

A sword handle

Huei-Wan, Camden Chinese Community Centre
Sofina, Bengali Men's Group
Tasneem, Coram

Huei-Wan: We were looking through the collection, we found this, it was in the Chinese collection. I started wondering how it came to belong in that collection and I couldn’t find any clues, so I discussed it with Wing Hong. We tried to review our knowledge - the historical knowledge we learnt at school. Wing and I come from different countries but we share the same stories about Chinese history. An object like this can inspire you to talk about many things.

I couldn’t make sense of this at first, the figures seem to be in Western style dress, but there is also what looks like Arabic writing on the top and along the bottom. On both sides it looks like people are holding eggs in their hands, could this be part of a religious ceremony?


We don’t know, it’s a mystery, but the more we talk about it the more we understand…I think it is an interesting process. We don’t always know the right answers, but this object encourages us to talk about it and perhaps do some research to deepen our understandings of it.

Tasneem: I’d rather listen to different stories around how you see it. It is quite fascinating, and then you hold on to those stories and maybe you pass it on when you meet other people and say ‘these are the different versions, so go by the one you like!’.

Sofina: Because the truth may be something completely different!


Towelling cloth

A towelling cloth

Abdul Noor, Sofina and Sunder, Bengali Men's Group
David, National Coalition for Black Volunteering
Tasneem, Coram

Sofina: This is a ‘gamcha’, this is very commonly used back home, you can use it as a towel or women use it to dry their hair...

Abdul Noor: Ladies can use it and men can use it and children. When we were young, we used to have a bath in a pond. You would take your clothes off and wear one of these and then you can swim and then dry it off. This gamcha was very cheap – probably less than 50 pence!

Another thing we used to see when I was young, in dairy farms they used to have these hanging up to make cheese. The liquid would come through and the cheese was left behind. This is really, really useful. Women also use it to dry their hair. They are still in used in our country.

Sunder: This one is not that good quality though, it is quite thin. If you wash it, it's going to get thinner

Sofina: I’ve got a very interesting piece here. I know this very well. It is something which is very commonly used in Bangladesh, India and other Asian countries. In my country it is called a ‘gamcha’, and it is the quickest and easiest form of towelling cloth.


Women back home, they have very long hair and after they come out of the bath they tie their hair up and wrap it around and this will absorb the water. Men also use it in the fields to wipe away their sweat.

David: Is it cotton material?

Sofina: Yes, that is why it dries very quickly. Children can use it, they would wrap it around them and then go for a swim. So it is a very common piece of cloth that is used in Bangladesh. Men, women, older people. Everybody uses it.

Tasneem: When I arrived in London for the first time in 1975, I can remember, I bought one ‘gamcha’ with me because I had long hair – very curly and thick hair – and I couldn’t use the towels here because they are so bulky. I couldn’t wrap the around my head.

David: So it absorbs water very easily?

Habib: I don’t think that it does absorb water that much, but what you can do is squeeze it out.

Sofina: It is quick drying as well. Because it is very fine you just put it out in the sun and it literally dries within minutes, and you can reuse it again and again. People use it all the time.

David: It’s like a big handkerchief!