Negotiating curatorial challenges in the Zanzibar Museum
The life of a museum depends essentially on the curator. Thus wrote Ailsa Nicol Smith at the time of her resignation as curator of the Zanzibar Museum in 1942 in an advisory memorandum for the Protectorate government. Tracing Nicol Smith's tenure in Zanzibar sheds light upon the status of colonial museums, the challenges to maintain them and the wider perception of museums within society. This chapter focuses principally upon these two strands, the nature of curatorship in a colonial museum and the particular challenges for a female officer holding this post. The career of Nicol Smith in Zanzibar reveals the substantial challenges of curating a colonial museum. Whilst dealing with extensive professional duties, she was continually forced to justify her role and that of the Museum. During her tenure, Nicol Smith enthusiastically supported attempts to bring together curators of the East African museums.
This chapter focuses on the 'correct impression' of Zanzibar in particular the historical narrative and its dissemination both in Britain and Zanzibar through exhibitions and printed texts. It reveals how these displays of material culture and the interpretative narratives associated with them offer new insights into the construction of Zanzibar's imperial identity at home and abroad in the first half of the twentieth century. Reflecting on the Zanzibar Court at the Wembley Empire Exhibition and the accompanying handbook, Francis Charlesworth believed the people of Zanzibar should be gratified in taking 'an adequate share in the carrying out of a great Imperial idea'. The historical narrative presented at the Wembley exhibition was also a key component of the new educational movement in Zanzibar. The publication of the School History coincided with the opening of the Peace Memorial Museum, which provided the opportunity to represent the historical narrative in material form.
Recent cultural studies have demonstrated the weakness of some of the fashionable theoretical positions adopted by scholars of imperialism in recent times. This book explores the diverse roles played by museums and their curators in moulding and representing the British imperial experience. The British Empire yielded much material for British museums, particularly in terms of ethnographic collections. The collection of essays demonstrates how individuals, their curatorial practices, and intellectual and political agendas influenced the development of a variety of museums across the globe. It suggests that Thomas Baines was deeply engaged with the public presentation, display and interpretation of material culture, and the dissemination of knowledge and information about the places he travelled. He introduced many people to the world beyond Norfolk. A discussion of visitor engagement with non-European material cultures in the provincial museum critiques the assumption of the pervasive nature of curatorial control of audience reception follows. The early 1900s, the New Zealand displays at world's fairs presented a vision of Maoriland, which often had direct Maori input. From its inception, the National Museum of Victoria performed the dual roles of research and public education. The book also discusses the collections at Australian War Memorial, Zanzibar Museum, and Sierra Leone's National Museum. The amateur enthusiasms and colonial museum policy in British West Africa are also highlighted. Finally, the book follows the journey of a single object, Tipu's Tiger, from India back to London.
History through material culture provides a practical introduction for researchers who wish to use objects and material culture as primary sources for the study of the past. The book focuses primarily on the period 1500 to the present day, but the principles put forward are equally applicable to studies of earlier historical eras. Histories of the last five centuries have been driven to a remarkable extent by textual records and it is with this in mind that History through material culture offers researchers a step-by-step guide to approaching the material evidence that survives from this period. Anticipating that many researchers will feel under-skilled or lacking in confidence in tackling artefacts of the past, the book traces the process of research from the framing of research questions through to the writing up of findings – giving particular attention to the ways in which objects can be located, accessed and understood. This practical guidance is augmented by the use of examples of seminal and contemporary scholarship in this interdisciplinary field, so that readers can see how particular approaches to sources have been used to develop historical narratives and arguments. It is written in accessible and jargon-free language with clear explanations of more complex discourses. In this way, the book demystifies both the process of researching objects and the way research practice relates to published scholarship.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book builds on the growing scholarly interest in the subject of museums and their various conflicted and shifting relationships with the British Empire. It reflects the complexity and diversity of the British imperial experience. The book addresses how museums formed part of the story of both colonisation and decolonisation. It reveals the subtle changes, within one exhibit, which represent multiple meanings in Australia's relationship with its own war-time history. The book focuses on museums in twentieth-century West and East Africa respectively, forcefully illustrate how museums were part of wider political contexts. It discusses the imperial experiences presented to the museum and exhibition-visiting public of Brighton and King's Lynn respectively. The book demonstrates how memorialisation impelled certain museums as strongly as collection display and interpretation.
This conclusion presents some closing thoughts on the concepts discussed in the preceding chapters of this book. The book focuses on the roles played by individuals, and the museums with which they were associated, in telling the multifaceted story of Britain's engagement with the wider world. The British Museum and the National Maritime Museum are the two national museums which provided the facilities and backdrop for the 'Museums, material culture and the British Empire' symposium in 2009. The book also focuses on Tipu's Tiger, a single object associated with one individual. It discusses how Britain's imperial engagement informed and influenced displays of material culture in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century provincial Britain. The book illustrates how interpretations is changed over time as the process of 'curating empire' continues to preoccupy and fascinate curators and museum visitors alike.
The introduction makes the case for historians making use of material culture, not only as a primary source, but as a catalyst for developing new lines of enquiry. This chapter sets the context of the book by describing how the academic landscape in the last twenty years has drawn museums and historians ever closer. It also defines the scope of ‘material culture’ for this book and explore common definitions in the interdisciplinary field of material culture studies. Finally, the introduction provides a summary of the contents of the chapters and suggestions for how to get the best out of the research guide
This chapter provides an overview of the origins of material culture studies and the disciplinary specialisms that have had the strongest bearing on their development. The theoretical underpinning of material culture studies will be elucidated through a clear and concise discussion of the work of philosophers and social theorists – making clear that 'things' have agency. The chapter demonstrates that by viewing the objects of the past as inanimate and inactive as compared with the living, breathing humans who made, exchanged, and used them - researchers can miss the dynamism of the object-person interactions that took place many decades or centuries ago. Moving on from the theoretical principles that have shaped the study of material things, the chapter discusses the circumstances that brought about historical material culture studies. It also considers the particular place of historical work within this context and the many potentialities material culture history offers for future research.
This chapter highlights how careful and rigorous thinking through of the research questions at an early stage gives confidence in the methodology and justification for using the object or collection as key primary sources. This chapter will show how object-specific questions create important and vital studies in and of themselves, but also how they can contribute to overarching research questions with wider historical significance.
Understanding museum collections and other repositories
This chapter focuses on the over-arching methodology of a research project, which guides the work that is conducted in a museum, library or archive. Using examples of contemporary historical scholarship, the choices researchers make about their primary sources, methods of analysis and theoretical frameworks are unpacked case by case. This chapter also deals with the difficulties of working on material culture that no longer survives, a challenge common to historical studies.