Museums and Imperialism: appropriations, science, and the bourgeois sphere

John MacKenzie (University of Lancaster)
4 May 2011





Language: English

 Author of Museums and Empire: Natural History, Human Cultures and Colonial Identities (Manchester University Press, 2009).


The nineteenth century was an era when certain European institutions, museums notable among them, appeared throughout the globe. This was of course one of the many cultural expressions of imperialism, but it also represented the world-wide expansion of the bourgeois public sphere. Members of the colonial bourgeoisie saw the founding of a museum as an essential rite de passage of the new imperial cities: they represented intellectual, cultural and social respectability, the appearance of European norms in exotic surroundings. Such museums sometimes started out with allegedly economic objectives, justifying their existence on the grounds that they could offer information for the developmental and exploitative purposes of colonies. They therefore concentrated on geological and natural historical collections. This phase was, however, soon superseded by the collection of cultural artefacts and museums began to be seen as having important educational objectives. Such cultural collections tended to attempt to embrace the world. Colonial museums were seeking to set themselves up as versions of those of the European capitals. Soon, however, it became apparent in most places that museums should rather represent the local cultural and anthropological environment. By the later nineteenth century, museum founders and curators were engaged in collecting and exchanging the artefacts of local peoples. This swiftly became a world-wide phenomenon and museums became, in many respects, conduits for the transfer of significant materials to Europe, part of the global acquisitiveness of the imperial process. By the early twentieth century, however, colonies were beginning to be concerned to keep their local materials at home. At this point, museums came to perform a new function. They began to operate as a means towards the creation of local identities. It was a relatively short step to the ‘national museums’ which are such a feature of the global museum movement. This comparative study examines museums in North America, southern Africa, Asia and Australasia.