Exhibiting the empire

Cultures of display and the British empire

Britain's overseas empire had a profound impact on people in the United Kingdom, their domestic spaces and rituals, and their perceptions of, and attitudes towards, the wider world. This book considers how a whole range of cultural products - from paintings to architecture - were used to record, celebrate and question the development of the British Empire. The churches and missionary societies were important in transmitting visual propaganda for their work, through their magazines, through lectures and magic lantern slides, through exhibitions and publications such as postcards. The book offers an overview of the main context in which four continents iconography was deployed after 1800: the country houses of the British elite. Publication, and subsequent distribution and consumption, offered a forum for exploration endeavours to enter public consciousness. James Cook's expeditions were particularly important in bringing exploration to a wider public audience, and the published accounts derived from them offer strong evidence of the interest in exploration at all levels of society. The exhibition of empire, typically associated with ambition, pride and expertise, also included an unruly genre: the satirical peace print. The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars resulted in the eclipse of the French, Spanish and Holy Roman Empires, and Britain's emergence as a 'global, naval, commercial, and imperial superpower'. Numerous scholars in recent years have noted the centrality of the Indian exhibits in the Crystal Palace and emphasised the exhibition's role in promoting commodities from Britain's colonies.

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‘Exhibiting the Empire is an excellent contribution to the continued debate about the empire's role in Britain. There is a good deal packed into this relatively short volume, which certainly raises a number of new topics and approaches that warrant further attention from scholars of empire, British and otherwise.'
Stephen Hague, Rowan University
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