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Let’s all go to the tea museum

Tea deserves a museum, given the role it has played as currency, as craft and as a catalyst for social change

Collection No. 73218 Fancy Tea, or Old men’s eye-brows tea, bound in silk thread from the Collection of G.C. Scorer, of the firm of Fortnum, Mason & Co. 1872. (Photo: Aurora Prehn)

One of the artefacts in Shortt’s collection is a nearly 100-year- old tea sample sent from Kenya to the London auctions.

On International Tea Day last month, Denys C. Shortt, a British businessman and officer of the Order of the British Empire, launched the Tea History Collection in Banbury, UK. The private collection is housed in a specially created temperature-controlled room; visits are by appointment only. Shortt’s interest in tea dates back to the 1960s, when his parents lived in Assam, managing the Rungagora Tea Estate and Langharjan Tea Estate. The drool-worthy collection includes vintage tins, adverts, objects relating to the business of tea, books on tea and tea companies….

Of course, tea deserves a museum, given the role it has played as currency, as industry, as craft, as a cultural motif, as a catalyst for social change. And every tea-growing country seems to have created at least one to showcase that rich and complex world, the industrial progress, new modes of transport, agricultural developments and brilliant marketing campaigns. Not far behind are museums for tea ware.

The China National Tea Museum in Hangzhou, fittingly located at Longjing village (which lends its name to the famed Longjing, or Dragonwell, tea), celebrates its history, customs and tea ware, pulling in visitors with the promise of tea ceremonies. China also has what is said to be the world’s largest tea museum, Tenfu, built on 13 acres in Fujian. In Japan, the tea museum is in Shizuoka, a region famous for tea production.

At home, the Doddabetta Tea Factory and Tea Museum in Ooty offers a tour of how tea is made—from leaf to end product. Munnar has a fair share of museums, mostly set up by tea companies. The Tata Tea Museum, or Kannan Devan Hills Plantation Tea Museum, India’s first, showcases machinery and artefacts, as does the Lockhart Museum. In the Nilgiris, the Jail Museum is part of the TANTEA estate, part of an effort to rehabilitate Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka. The museum is an important link to the Chinese connection with this region.

The US’ Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum offers virtual tours, talks, a ticketed, hour-long presentation on tea, and stories of the Boston Tea Party of 1773.

In London, the Twinings Museum is next to the Twinings Shop at The Strand. And at Greenwich lies the Cutty Sark, the last of the tea clippers, now converted into a museum, the only one on this list I have visited so far.

The one I really hope to visit is the Economic Botany Collection at London’s Kew Gardens, curated by Prof. Mark Nesbitt. Why is it special? It’s primarily a selection of tea leaves and processed teas from the past. Not documents or books. It gives “reading the tea leaves” a whole new meaning, doesn’t it?

Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1

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