Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

London’s Museums as Commentaries on Imperialism

September 18th, 2010 · No Comments

The museums of London seem to all fall around one dominant theme: imperialism. Seeing that this defined the British Empire for a majority of the last three centuries, it is no wonder that one can see its influence in each place one visits in London. Every museum either boasts the riches and plunders of the imperial era or makes some sort of comment on imperialism by what the curators chose and didn’t choose to include. As imperialism is, in my mind, the central idea around which all these museums exist, I’m going to take a look at each of the museums I have visited as reflections on the topic:

The British Museum: Many have already commented about the BM’s collection of artifacts and treasures from around the globe. It’s hard not to look at the mummies of ancient Egypt or the Elgin marbles without wondering just how exactly the BM got a hold of them. For its part, the museum seems to take delight in owning a collection that many would not consider rightfully theirs. On the “History of the World in 100 Objects,” I noted the quip the curator made about the “four languages” on the Rosetta Stone (as “Captured by the British Army” appears in English on the side of the artifact). While the BM could just ignore England’s imperial past, it seems to be content with making quips about where these objects came from. Essentially, the museum feels like a chance to show off the spoils of imperialism to rest of the world.

The Victoria and Albert Museum: This museum feels like a massive palace packed with valuables. In keeping with the British Museum, everything is thrown into areas based around vague “themes.” If you want to see jewelry, be prepared for a lot of rooms with a lot of randomly assorted riches. If you seek a certain historical artifact, you can probably find the right room based on the era and location of the piece, but after that you might have some problems as the rooms are randomly set up and gargantuan. Given the opulence of the collection, one cannot help but wonder how in the world the V&A wound up with all this stuff. The riches of imperialism are on full display at the V&A.

The Sir John Soane Museum: If the Victoria and Albert Museum feels like a massive palace packed with valuables obtained through imperialism, the Sir John Soane Museum IS a house packed with valuables obtained through imperialism. The place screams overkill, with walls of paintings that open up to more walls of paintings. I was particularly struck by the ivory chairs from India obtained during the eighteenth century: a very offsetting piece of the collection.

Natural History Museum: A few of us went through this museum after visiting the V&A, as the museum originated from the leftover collection at the V&A. While most of what one sees in the museum would not instantly recall British imperialism, some elements of the collection, like precious gems from South Africa, lead one to wonder just exactly how the museum got a hold of these pieces.

National Gallery: I really enjoyed this museum, but it is entirely Western European paintings. Given the Docklands Museum of London’s reference to the beauty of the arts in Africa before imperialism and slavery, why are none of these cultures, or those of the Middle East, represented?

National Portrait Gallery: I won’t go too much into this one, as several of my colleagues have already commented on the National Portrait Gallery’s imperialist nature. There is a stunning lack of racial or economic diversity in the collection, and I think a lot of that is a result of Britain’s imperialist past.

The Imperial War Museum: For a museum with the word “imperial” in the title, this museum actually had some of the least evidence of Britain’s imperial past of any of the places we visited. Only part of one wall was dedicated to all of the events surrounding the colonization of Africa, and I cannot recall any of the exhibits examining the struggles and fights for independence in any other former part of the British Empire. It is almost as if the curators wanted to sweep the entire history of British imperialism under the rug to focus on the glories of WWI and WWII. Based on the exhibits, one could easily come to conclusion that the Britain is embarrassed of its complete history. It was a cool museum, and I loved the section on British espionage (Who can’t love an exhibit that begins with James Bond clips?), but I found the museum incomplete because it ignored England’s imperial past.

The Cabinet War Rooms/Churchill Museum: My personal vote as the coolest museum in London, the Cabinet War Rooms show Britain near the end of the era of imperialism. Given the museum’s narrow focus, looking just at Churchill’s life and the struggle of the War Cabinet during the WWII Blitz, there was not much focus given to imperialism. One section of the Churchill Museum commented on the prime minister’s stance, early in his political career, in opposition to Indian independence. The part of the exhibit took a very apologetic tone, acknowledging Churchill’s mistake in taking such a position. Considering this museum is run in conjunction with the Imperial Museum, this part of the exhibit may provide an insight into the mind of the curators at that museum. Clearly, there is some sense of remorse on the part of the curators, evidenced by the Churchill Museum, for the British Empire’s actions, which could explain the lack of information about such events in the Imperial War Museum. Perhaps the curators are too ashamed to even broach the subject of British Imperialism.

Based on my observations, every museum I’ve seen in London is either indebted to imperialism due its bountiful collection of artifacts, or it tries to comment on the British Empire’s imperial past, typically by covering it up. Fifty years after the fall of imperialism, which is not that long ago, we still see its effects on the city of London.

Tags: 2010 Andrew

The Museum Experience

September 15th, 2009 · No Comments

I went back to the National Gallery and was blown away by a painting: The Toilet of Venus by Diego Velázquez. The painting shows the the naked goddess Venus, looking at herself in the mirror, which is being held by her son, Cupid. Every time I went to the National Gallery, I passed it by. I do not why, but this time, I looked at it, and I just thought it was so powerful. I wondered why I had not seen it before. Why didn’t I noticed it the first time I visited London some years ago? I think sometimes, as we change, so is the way we observe things. Maybe, I was not ready to see it at the time.

Very similarly, I went to the National Portrait Gallery and realized I had a totally different experience than when I visited the place for the first time. I also went to the exhibit “Londoners Through a Lens” at the Getty Images Gallery near Oxford Circus. Comparing the two, I felt that portraits spoke to me much more than pictures. Not only should I mention that they are incredibly well done, but also, that they express so much more about the actual person, because you can just see how the painter views him or her. I specially enjoyed the portrait of Germaine Greer, a feminist advocate. I like how none of these portraits are condescending, but speak only the truth about those in the image. They also catch the subject in his or her natural habitat. There is nothing artificial about them, even if they are not pictures. 

The main comparison I wanted to make in this post though, is between the Imperial War Museum and the Royal Air Force Museum. People usually think that the Imperial War describes English military history (there was even a big debate on whether to change its name or not). However, except for a few tanks displayed in the centre, most of the Museum deals with how the population suffered because of wars, particularly through the Holocaust gallery and the crimes against humanity gallery. Of course there could be a debate here over whether the a Holocaust gallery in an English museum is coherent or appropriate at all. Without getting into Holocaust Studies and how Holocaust museums have been created and grown almost exponentially in the past few years, I want to ask myself: Is the Museum trying to claim that England is in some way responsible for the Holocaust ever happening? After all, many would say that the Second World War was a direct consequence of the First World War which had its origins in imperialism, and England as the main empire. This is certainly very debatable, but it was just a thought…

Very differently, the Royal Air Force Museum displays a vast amount of military artifacts and describes English military history and technological advancement. The Museum does not include civilians at all.  However, they are both free, and they both deal with war.

As we see, we can draw many conclusions by comparing museums which have a similar theme. I also enjoyed comparing the programs for children and family that these museums have since I work at the Education Outreach office of the Trout Gallery at Dickinson, and I always like getting new ideas.

Tags: Azul