Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2018-19/Imperialism in Museums

Introduction edit

Imperialism broadly denotes an expansion of a state’s power involving territorial, political, or economic control over other areas or peoples. Contemporary understanding of imperialism primarily refers to the dominance exerted overseas by European empires in the 19th and 20th century.[1] Most generally, imperialism is associated with a power imbalance between two states.[2] Doyle characterizes imperialism as a relationship between a dominating metropolitan centre and the peripheral territory it controls.[3] Profound inequality between metropole and periphery is implicit in this definition, which has been employed by scholars such as Edward Said.[4] Furthermore, imperialism can exist without direct rule over foreign territories, instead it can exercise control in political, economic, or social spheres.[1] Notably, Said outlines how imperialism can be generated through culture and knowledge[5] by conceptualizing the colonized population as an inferior ‘other’, thus reinforcing a dichotomy of identities.[6]

Imperialist legacy remains present in museums around the world and is thus an important issue to address. Art historians such as Alice Procter, who established the 'Uncomfortable Art Tours', aim to challenge how information is displayed in museums and to highlight their imperialistic nature demonstrating the contemporary relevance of this issue.[7] Accordingly, we will observe the way in which museums are still used to create divisions in people's minds. This subconscious division, as conceptualised by John Willinsky, is between different cultures, based on race, religion or gender.[8] This claim is supported by Galtung's findings regarding the psychological effect of imperialism on human behaviour. His study suggests that imperialism creates a differing basic psyche between students from countries that benefit from imperialism, and students coming from negatively impacted countries. Students from countries which benefit are more inclined to be autonomous, whilst students from negatively impacted countries are more dependent.[9] It is this division that maintains the strength of imperialist ideologies within a society, one group believing they are superior to another and so should dominate. We will argue that museums, through architecture, categorisation, displays and appropriation, are one tool used to help further enforce these psychological divisions.

Case Studies edit

To illustrate the existing imperialist nature of museums we will examine three museums and the way in which their particular features create the divisions within people’s minds that Willinsky describes.

The Great Exhibition edit

The Great Exhibition- Crystal Palace
Moving Machinery

As a past example, The Great Exhibition, a Victorian international exhibition of culture and industry was used to display the technological, political, and intellectual project of Western imperialist powers and, in doing so 'insisted on the perfectibility of all peoples (under European guidance)'.[10] The culture that was chosen to be displayed to the world was one of progress and innovation, as opposed to any parts of British culture which might tarnish Britain's reputation. This shows how institutions were utilised to assert the superiority of the Western, European or even 'white' culture, over other cultures which imperialists desired control over. The superiority of Western culture that was displayed, is one way in which divisions were created in people's minds between the 'superior' intellect of West versus East, or civilised peoples versus savages.

Imperialism in the Australian War Memorial edit

The Australian War Memorial

The exclusion of the frontier wars in the Australian War Memorial supports Willinksy’s argument as it creates a psychological division of the inferiority of the Australian aborigines and the British colonialists. The memorial was opened in 1941 and aims to commemorate the country's soldiers that died during the wars that make up its history. The museum primarily focuses on Anzac history and conveniently excludes the frontier battles between the Australian aborigines and colonial police, soldiers and settlers which serve as a historical example of colonialist racial violence.[11] Additionally, in 2018 the Australian government has spent over $600 million on a four year commemoration service known as Anzac 100 [12], which makes their failure to remember the aborigines even more severe.

As it is estimated that approximately 20,000 indigenous Australians died between 1978 to 1928 as part of the frontier conflicts,[11] one must question the reasons behind the museum's disinterest in the events. As argued by historian Michael MacKernan the museum's exclusion of the battles suggests that "the particular part of the story is too confronting or too uncomfortable" to be mentioned,[11] therefore creating even greater controversy around the subject. This omission therefore illustrates the presence of imperialism in the museum as it aims to disregard the racist nature of the British colonialists. Moreover, the exclusion of the battles doesn't display the oppressive quality of the violent settlement of the British colonialists in Australia. It thus indirectly portrays the settlers as superior as they are almost exempted of their crimes through the fact that they are not being mentioned. This has the effect of validating their actions and thus creating a division between the colonists and the aborigines.

Imperialism in the British Museum edit

The British Museum

The British Museum emerged as a direct consequence of politics, as successful colonial expeditions provided ‘exotic’ objects to be displayed as indicative of the Empire’s power.[13] Therefore incapable of being neutral, this exhibition space is intrinsically laden with imperialist implications which (whether purposefully or inadvertently) recontextualise the objects.[14]

Elgin Marbles- Classical Greek marble sculptures

In recent years there has been an increase in requests for the repatriation of artefacts made by former colonies, which at the time were unable to withstand “the original removal of historical objects”.[13] In contrast to other institutions, the BM has remained obstinate in its response to such requests, arguing the collection in its current constellation and location, permits maximum benefit for the most amount of people. In this way the BM maintains its position as an “appropriate custodian”[13] to these objects, subsequently implying the source nations as incapable of housing their own artefacts and dependent on Britain. As the political relationship between these states to Western powers has changed, however, the refusal to return artefacts, perpetuates feelings of suppression, serving as a constant reminder of their removal.[13]

To this extent denying repatriation reinforces the psychological divide in visitors as described by Willinsky as it prohibits interpretations by the source nations of their own artefacts, instead imposing an imperial, eurocentric lens on much of their cultural heritage.[13] This is further demonstrated by the general movement of objects from former colonies to Britain, the “civilised centre”, defining the former as peripheral and thus inferior to the latter.[14] As these objects are integral to the cultivation of national identity and pride, it follows that a separation from these objects could be detrimental to a nation’s self-worth.

Conclusion edit

The issue of imperialism in museums naturally incorporates the disciplines of politics, art history and anthropology. In order to better understand the extent to which imperialism is still present in contemporary museums we considered the psychological effects imperialism has. This was supportive of Willinsky’s point that imperialism creates divisions within people’s minds. We explored these divisions both with past examples, and in the contemporary world. It was found that in both old and new museums, whether intentional or not, a dichotomy between Western and ‘other’ cultures remains present. It seems important then that, like Alice Procter, we don’t consider imperialism as something of the past but continue to challenge the divisive narrative it continually presents us with.

References edit

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  2. Howe S. Empire: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press; 2002.
  3. Doyle MW. Empires. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press; 1986.
  4. Said E. Culture and Imperialism [Internet]. New York: Vintage Books; 1994 [cited 2018 Nov 27]. p. 9. Available from:
  5. Duara P. Modern Imperialism. In: Bentley JH, editor. The Oxford Handbook of World History [Internet]. Oxford University Press; 2011 [cited 2018 Nov 26]. p. 8. Available from:
  6. Said E. Orientalism [Internet]. New York: Vintage Books; 1979 [cited 2018 Dec 3]. p. 39–46. Available from:
  7. Procter A. Museums are hiding their imperial pasts- which is why my tours are needed. The Guardian. 23 Apr 2018 [cited: 29 Nov 2018]. Available from:
  8. Willinsky, John. Learning to Divide the World. University of Minnesota Press; 1998.
  9. Eckhardt W. and Young C. Psychology of Imperialism. Peace Research. January 1975. Volume 7 42-44. Available from:
  10. Buchli, Victor. The Material Culture Reader. Oxford: Berg Publishers; 2001.
  11. a b c Daley P. Why does the Australian War Memorial ignore the frontier war?. The Guardian. 12 Sep 2013 [cited: 29 Nov 2018]. Available from:
  12. Daley P. Australia's frontier war killings still conveniently escape official memory. The Guardian. 8 Jun 2018 [cited: 29 Nov 2018]. Available from:
  13. a b c d e Duthie, Emilie. The British Museum: An Imperial Museum in a Post-Imperial World. Public History Review. 2011; 18: 12-25
  14. a b Svašek, Maruška. Museums: Space, Materiality and the Politics of Display. In: Mitchell, John P. (ed.) Anthropology, Art and Cultural Production. Pluto Press; 2007. p.123-153.