Museums and Colonialism

Museums and Colonialism

Museums and Colonialism

By: Sony Saifuddin

Technological Advances as a Motivator

Around the 12th to 15th centuries AD, Europe suffered a setback in many respects. Enlightenment called the renaissance then pushed their technological and cultural progress. In the 1700s, in major European cities at that time, such as London, Amsterdam, Leyden, and Paris, there was a change in the way people viewed the world, which fundamentally changed the course of human civilization in the future. This phenomenon then makes many people interested in the intricacies of natural life and the material world around them. The symptoms of this interest were found in almost all circles, both by the rulers of the time, such as governors and kings, priests, nobles, landlords, or traders along with the transfer of work tasks such as food processing, textile manufacture, and wood and iron work to the people. workers or laborers (Pearce, 2010).

Advances in transportation technology with the invention of the steam engine have triggered the movement of shipping to all corners of the world to find new sources of trade commodities. The voyage was not only intended to trade, but also had another purpose in the form of colonialism politics. Colonialism characterizes the internal domination of one group over another. Its dominance includes culture, ideology, value systems, and so on (Vonk, 2013). Traders, colonial government officials, and researchers often brought back to Europe various kinds of cultural objects in the form of traditional weapons, arts and crafts objects from the visited or controlled areas. Also human skull bones from various races on earth did not escape their attention to be transported to Europe. These objects became known as ethnographic objects which were originally collected from palace buildings or houses of nobles and merchants as a collection of objects that were considered strange by Europeans at that time (Koentjaraningrat, 1987).


The Emergence of Exhibitions
Every day more and more objects are collected and stored. This encourages them to exhibit the collected ethnographic objects. In the late 18th century knowledge of ethnographic objects became increasingly popular among wealthy Europeans. This gave rise to the idea of ??organizing the first ethnographic museums. The second half of the 19th century was full of industrial exhibitions in the major cities of the North Atlantic region. Starting from the exhibition entitled Great International Exposition at Crystal Palace, London in 1851, to the exhibition of New York's "Crystal Palace" Fair in 1853 which then rolled alternately for almost seven decades. In 1867 Louis Napoleon organized the Paris Exposition with the aim of showing the world about the stability of the country during his reign. Louis XIV's collection in Paris, France is exhibited to show how the world order under the rule of the Bourbon dynasty. Likewise in England, there were temporary exhibitions of art objects for political purposes to show the power of the Tudor government. Through this exhibition, objects are given a new meaning as a symbol of the superiority of the ruler (Yamaguchi, 1991).

The exhibition, in its concept and construction, is considered a part of early or classical imperialism. The objects on display are dominated by raw materials for industry. The exhibition was also attended by companies that became business empires engaged in manufacturing whose raw materials were obtained from their colonies. As a phenomenon, industrial exhibitions are like celebrations of the domination of civilized (Western) nations over natural resources and nations that are considered backward or primitive (Hinsley, 1991).

Europeans at that time felt it was not enough just to take and exhibit cultural objects, so they brought people directly to Europe from their home countries. They are shown to satisfy their curiosity about other worlds outside Europe. The first exhibition in New York in 1853, themed "Machinery". The contents of the exhibition are related to the intricacies of machinery, especially to introduce sewing machines. However, in its implementation, human actors of culture are also displayed. Among those featured in the exhibition are a mysterious dancer nicknamed the Lady in Red, then the Wild Man of Borneo, the cannibals from Fiji, and a tent that accommodates three hundred people from fifty Indian tribes. The exhibition is described as a mixture of deep curiosity and interest in science, between gruesome and medical showrooms, between circus and zoo shows, between live and real theatrical performances and ethnographic displays. Such exhibitions were opposed by conservative Protestants who forced them to move the exhibition space from the theater or performance venue to a museum (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 1991).

The practice of sending missions to remote areas to bring back communities that were considered exotic to be exhibited to the European public was widespread in the 1870s. As done by animal trainer and zoo expert from Hamburg named Carl Hagenbeck. Around 1876, Hagenbeck sent his colleague Johan Adrian Jacobsen to search for and bring a collection of artifacts and six Eskimos from Greenland to Hamburg. Then a similar mission was carried out until finally a tragedy occurred in which all members of the mission died of smallpox which discouraged Hagenbeck to show off people from remote tribes. Two years later the effort was restarted and successfully held exhibitions in twenty-seven cities during an eleven-month tour involving about two thousand artifacts (Hinsley, 1991).

Exhibition of ethnographic collections became a common activity in the 19th century in Europe. One event that is quite phenomenal is the World Fair. The ethnographic material presented in the World Fair comes from the people of countries colonized by European countries (Hinsley, 1991). This exhibition is recognized as the largest and most complex exhibition in the context of its program of events. The exhibition functions as an architectural laboratory, a center for anthropological field research, a garden with the theme of "early culture", driving consumerism, developing nationalism, and a place to reconstruct the future dreamed of by colonialism. The World Fair also contributes to the development of museums, where many of the objects displayed at the World Fair are then sent to the museum in order to save on shipping costs back to their country of origin (Rydell, 2006).


Culture as a Commodity
The interesting thing is conveyed by Hinsley (1991) that actually the exhibition that displays all kinds of ethnographic forms basically shows the power of money in shaping relationships between humans. He said that the Columbian Exposition was a celebration to create a market. Trade and exchange contain a promise to be able to solve the problem of differences among human beings. The commercialization process assumes that basically everything can be sold and everyone has a price, in other words the world can be seen as money (Hinsley, 1991).

Advances in transportation technology used in trade, such as steamships and trains, are basically symbols of the movement of goods, services, and people. Its main movement was driven by colonialism which sailed from the center (Europe) to the periphery (colonies) and then back again to Europe. So it is not surprising that the people in the colonies became an attractive market. In other words, the main interest of Europeans towards foreign communities in their colonies was not due to the beauty of their culture but rather to economic factors that were considered to be able to bring material and financial benefits to the colonialists (Hinsley, 1991).

As a social and cultural institution, museums play a role in packaging knowledge through exhibitions. Museums collect objects, choose topics, and build discourse through exhibition activities. In this way, the museum is not only a cultural stage but also holds great authority in science. In other words, museums have the power to shape people's ideologies and beliefs about something that is considered true through their exhibitions (Dai-Rong, 2006). Museums contributed to the development and dissemination of colonial rule culture to 19th century society. As a tool of colonialism, museums exhibited colonial dreams to control and regulate society through more detailed exploration, collection, and classification of nature and culture in the world (Legene, 2012).


Dai-Rong, Wu. 2006. Cultural Hegemony in The Museum World. Conference Papers.

Hinsley, Curtis. M. 1991. “The World as Marketplace: Commodification of the Exotic at the World?s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893” in Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine (ed). Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. 1991. “Objects of Ethnography” in Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine (ed). Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

Kontjaraningrat. 1987. History of Anthropological Theory I. Jakarta: UI-Press.

Legene, Susan. 2012. “Powerful Ideas Museums, Empire Utopias and Connected World” In ICMAH – COMCOL Annual Conference. South Africa.

Pearce, Susan. 2010. “The Collecting Process and The Founding of Museums in The Sixteenth, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth Centuries” in Susanna Pettersson (ed). Encouraging Collections Mobility – A Way Forward for Museums in Europe. Helsinki: Finnish National Gallery

Rydell, Robert W. 2006. “World Fairs and Museums” in Sharon Macdonald (ed). A Companion to Museum Studies, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Yamaguchi, Masao. 1991. “The Poetics of Exhibition in Japanese Culture” in Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine (ed). Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.