Charlotte Dixon

Sailing the monsoon winds in miniature: model boats as evidence for boat building technologies, cultures and collecting

Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council

Using model boats originating from the Indian Ocean, now housed in UK museums, this research explores traditional boat building, maritime cultures and collecting.

Start Date: September 2013
End Date: September 2017
Theme: Objects, meanings, and knowledge, Ocean trade and connections, Technologies, materials and innovation
Research discipline: Archaeology, Museum studies, Ethnography
Locations: Africa, Middle East, South Asia
Staff member: JD Hill
Department: Directorate
University and department: Department of Archaeology, University of Southampton
University supervisor: Lucy Blue

Why are models of traditional Indian Ocean boats important?

The models have potential to inform us about traditional boats and their maritime contexts providing new and supporting evidences where there is currently limited information.

What types of boats do the models represent?

The models reveal patterns in the types, variety and location of boats represented - for example there are Indian surf boats, Sri Lankan outrigger canoes and Arabian dhows.

Can model boats inform us about boat building traditions?

The high level of detail in many of the model boats can reveal representative aspects of the construction of full size vessels, such as methods of planking and waterproofing.

About my research

The British Museum, along with other UK museums, hold collections of traditional boat models from the Indian Ocean region, mainly dating from the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century. These models have been considerably understudied and are rarely exhibited.

With western influences impacting boat building, as well as the availability of materials and technologies, such as the motor, many traditional boats from the Indian Ocean are now adapted, in decline or extinct.

Little is known about traditional boats of the Indian Ocean, including how they were built and why and how they were used, so it is anticipated the models will provide insights into these vessels by asking a series of research questions. This includes key questions about the boats and boat building technologies the models portray, and, in order to understand the biases in why the models were made and collected, questions about the collectors, maritime cultures and collecting.

Aims of my research

Using model boats from a range of museum collections as evidence, this research aims to further insights and understandings of traditional boats and technologies of the Indian Ocean region.

The research considers not only how and why boats were constructed through the study of models, but explores the wider social constructs of maritime cultures, as well as British collectors and the phenomenon of ethnographic collecting. This project aims to identify to what extent these models can be used as a new source of evidence to support existing archaeological, historical and iconographic sources, and potentially provide new insights into traditional boats.

The main objective is to highlight and promote the potential use of model boats in museum collections for future studies and exhibitions by studying their contribution in understanding the maritime history and cultures of the Indian Ocean.


‘Sailing a miniature world: model boats at international exhibitions’ presented at Worlds in Miniature 2 a workshop run by myself and fellow CDA student Jack Davy at the British Museum, October 2014

‘Sailing the monsoon winds in miniature: model boats and collaborative experiences at the British Museum and University of Southampton’ presented at the Royal Geographic Society – IBG Annual International Conference, August 2014

Also co-hosting a series of workshops with fellow CDA student Jack Davy on the phenomenon of miniaturisation called Worlds in Miniature, the next workshop will be spring 2015.


Spicy stories: the case of a clove boat model