Museums and the Colonial Past 2. A European dimension of the colonial past

In order to trace that European dimension of the colonial past through museums we have to look beyond the aforementioned historiographically dominant motherland/colony-axis of colonial relationships. The institutional history, the collections, the buildings and exhibition practices of, say, the British Museum or Victoria and Albert in London, not only tell a story about the capital city of the former British Empire. Together with the Rijksmuseum and the Tropenmuseum as the former Colonial Museum in Amsterdam, these institutions also express both a set of links and parallel trends that exceed the specific empire pasts of either Great Britain or the Netherlands. And such parallel lines can be drawn as well with museums in European countries that in a strictly political sense did not establish colonies outside of the borders of what would become the own European state.

Compare, for instance, connotations of the Sámi collections in the Norsk Folkemuseum in Oslo Museum and the Asian Art collections at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Both were collected with a reference to internal or foreign oriental “others”. The Sámi collections originated from a demand from the Crystal Palace in Sydenham, London, who asked for Sámi objects in exchange of other ethnographical artefacts. This demand became the beginning of the Etnographic Museum in Oslo (today The Museum of Cultural History). In the 1950s they were transferred to the Norsk Folkemuseum as a recognition (or assimilation) of the Sámi as part of the Norwegian population. The Asian Art collection in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam originates as well in the national ethnographic collections. After the founding of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam they were separated from ethnography in the National Museum of Ethnology  in Leiden (that also has Sámi-collections), in order to strengthen the international stature of the Rijksmuseum. In both cases, the appreciation of these collections as art, ethnography or folklore is embedded in the work of academic disciplines like anthropology or art history, that as such has contributed to establishing the cultural hierarchies at stake in European colonial history. 

Despite the many parallels, museums rarely establish such transnational connections. Here the British Museum’s 2010 project “A history of the World in 100 Objects” can be mentioned as a case in point. Intended as an inclusive project for people from all over the UK, it is also a digitally mediated contemporary echo of the museum’s roots in British imperialism. Implicitly it reflects a European imperialism connected to a discourse on globalization and universalism, however, it does not address European citizens. Instead, it focuses on the four nations of the present UK and the inclusion of the UK’s postcolonial immigrants. Is it inherent to the making of museums as tools of empire, that today they have difficulties to surpass the frame of the current nation state in addressing global society? Are the former tools of empire now just tools of the nation state?

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