Museums and the Colonial Past 1. A national colonial past, global history, and Europe

 Can one can speak of the colonial past of Europe? And what can museums tell us about that colonial past?  How does that past frame museums ? In each European “nation with a colonial past”, empire histories are part of a national history. Each of these national histories of empire refers to past and current (asymmetrical) relationships with different other regions inside and outside of Europe. Each history refers to different time frames, actors and interactions; and they involve different contemporary overseas and European communities to whom that past is relevant.

National historiographies of colonialism as a rule place such national histories in a global perspective, rather than within a European history. Even though “colonialism refuses historiographical compartmentalization” and instead rapidly unfolds into the history of the modern world,[i] we do see a strong compartmentalization of colonialism through national histories. For instance John Mackenzie’s “Museums and empire”, or Marieke Bloembergen’s “Colonial spectacles”, explain very well the relationship between museums and the colonial past, both in Europe and in the former colonies. However, the history of Great Britain or the history of Netherlands provide the dominant frames of their analysis.[ii] Here as elsewhere, discussing European colonialism tends to be restricted to a mere comparison of national repertoires of colonialism, while ignoring colonialism’s many transnational moments. It obscures, for instance, the many subjects of European countries like Norway that participated in such overseas colonialisms.

Postcolonial scholars like Dipesh Chakrabarty, rightly point at the importance to “provincialize Europe” and no longer see it as a kind of center-staged hyper-reality to which the former colonial world has to relate itself. However, meanwhile we cannot take this European dimension of the colonial past for granted. It still needs a lot of work to create a full picture of Europe, that touches upon Europe’s hyper-reality while also acknowledging its internal asymmetries. So what has been European about European colonialism?

Museums are important spaces where we can explore and discuss this question beyond the mere comparison of colonialisms, and with photograph collections as a most valuable source. First the museums: As institutions, their making is closely connected to the history of state formation and nation building. Throughout the nineteenth century, museums emerged as new public spaces where cultural hierarchies were negotiated and people were educated to become citizens.[iii] As such they also represented an active tool of empire. Not only were overseas collecting practices an inherent part of colonialism.  At home, by researching  and displaying the overseas collections, museums also offered a public justification for expansion and imperial rule, while developing a framework for intellectual understanding of self and others that became entangled with exclusive rules concerning citizenship entitlements. Moreover, together with world exhibitions, national museums came to embody competitive statements within the unstable continental European power relationships. The newspaper photograph of the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina showing the Netherlands-Indies at the 1931 Paris World Exhibition to the influential French colonial administrator and former army general Hubert Lyautey, refers to this entanglement.

[i] Christopher Pinney “Colonialism and Culture” in T. Bennett (ed) The Sage Handbook of Cultural Analysis, (London, 2008) p. 382.

[ii] John M. MacKenzie “Museums and empire. Natural history, human cultures and colonial identities.” [Manchester,2009];  Marieke Bloembergen, Colonial Spectacles: The Netherlands and the Dutch East Indies at the World Exhibitions, 1880-1931” [Singapore, 2006].

[iii] For instance: Julia Noordegraaf “Strategies of Display, Museum Presentation in Nineteenth- and twentieth-Century Visual Culture” [Rotterdam, 2004].