Whose Heritage? project update:The Omani khanjar

In October 2023, four objects were selected as a case study to further the Whose Heritage? Project in its process of decolonising the James Family Collection. Three daggers and an axe were identified to be from the Middle East, likely purchases from Frank James during his journey on the Lancashire Witch. The purpose of this case study was to re-evaluate the perceptions of the ethnographic objects in West Dean’s collection, transforming the passive view of a trophy object on the wall of the Oak Hall, to an object that can reflect its ascribed values and its cultural origins. 

Caitlin Young, who is studying on the MA Conservation Studies programme specialising in Metalwork, selected these objects due to her combined interest in edged weapons and alternative cultural approaches to conservation. Following her contribution to the organisation of West Dean’s Summer Student Conference in 2023, themed around decolonial practices in heritage, she has been volunteering with the collections team, looking at how West Dean’s own collection can be recontextualised to better understand the people and cultures that the James family encountered.


To begin, it was important to identify the likely place of origin of these edged weapons. Hugh Morrison, Collections Manager, formulated a map which linked dates and places of James’ route, corresponding to his travel journals. Using this information, it was easier to narrow the date range of James’ journey to find any reference to the acquisition of the objects. In volume XV (15), dated April 11th 1887, Frank James writes he purchased a ‘curved Muscat dagger’ with a ‘good deal’ of silver on the sheath and hilt costing 95 rupees, bought from Muscat, the capital of Oman. This was most likely the silver belted dagger (978.28) that was identified as an Omani khanjar of the Saidi style. Similar daggers were seen in the albums accompanying the expedition, most notable the men and teenage boys adorned with their khanjars, the young boys without. When researching the values ascribed to the daggers, a common practise was to gift the blade as a ‘coming of age’ present to a boy, a sign he had become a man. Shown in the travel albums are a variety of similar curved daggers in the belts of the local men.

Provisional values were identified at the early stage of the case study. Before consulting with communities and people from the countries, literature provided a reasonable understanding of what was valued about the khanjar.

Traditional values:

  • Everyday wear
  • Preparing animals for slaughter
  • Prestige and ceremony
  • Protection


  • Ceremonial/official
  • Masculinity/coming of age
  • National pride 

The next step required reaching out to the people culturally connected to these objects. This proved to be an extremely difficult process -  many groups and societies did not respond and those that did, felt it was too much pressure to speak for these objects. It was apparent that this process was not working, so after a call with the consultation company Barker Langham, connections were formed from the Oman Across Ages Museum. The conservators provided detailed information about values, easing the worry about sensitive handling protocols and advising on treatment. Unfortunately, at this stage, no connections were found for the other objects, so the decision was made to focus solely on the Omani khanjar.


Once the treatment proposal was confirmed by Omani conservators and the Metalwork Conservation tutor Kate Jennings, the khanjar was taken from the collections store room to the metalwork workshop.

After removing the previous lacquer layer, the silverwork was cleaned with a vulcanised rubber sponge and eraser pencil. This was gentle enough for the delicate surface but abrasive enough to remove the tarnish. The textile elements were extremely soiled and brittle, so surface cleaning was undertaken with a brush and museum vacuum. This removed a great deal but would benefit from further treatment from a textile conservator. Loose threads were consolidated with 10% Paraloid B72 in acetone and the metal surface was relacquered with Paraloid B48N.

A custom box was made from corrugated plastic, cushioned with Plastazote and acid-free tissue paper to allow a better distribution of weight and less twisting of the belt. 



A custom mount was made from steel to give a strong support to the object. A prototype from brass ensured the shape would be well balanced with a side prong to show the textile detail on the belt. The process was undertaken in the metals workshop with an oxy-acetylene torch (significantly higher temperature than the usual propane torch) to braze brass solder to keep the steel pieces together.

To finish the mount, the shape was refined by sanding and filing, before abrading the surface with a sand blaster. The porous surface was coated with paint and then allowed to off-gas for two weeks.


Completed mount on the left, with brass prototype on the right.


Originally, this project intended to include three stages, collections management, conservation and curation. It was important from a collections management perspective that objects could be found easily on the database and commonly used terms were required to make searching the system accessible. For the khanjar, few would refer to it by its original name without the contextual knowledge, so it needed to be linked to the term ‘dagger’ but titled by its proper name ‘khanjar’. However, with IT difficulties, Axiell, the collections management system, had been offline since August 2023 so this stage had to be dropped from the project. In lieu of this, a proposed catalogue page and spreadsheet has been created to cover the accessibility and terminology issues and will hopefully become incorporated into the system when back online.


Exhibition planning

The design for the exhibition was important to visualise what the space would look like and once the travel journal and khanjar was added, it was decided to minimise the surrounding images. It was agreed this complemented the objects and would not be competing with too many eye-catching elements.

The space was evenly distributed with contextual information and provenance surrounding the project and the history of the objects to justify its place in the collection. To follow this, a survey has been undertaken to understand how the West Dean College community responds to this exhibition and who they feel has been represented the most. 


Exhibition plan