Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

036: Exhibiting Africa in imperial capitals

London. Opened 1890s but a failure within ten years. Demolished.

London. Opened 1890s but a failure within ten years. Demolished.

Tervuren. Built 1904, still focusses on the Congo.
Tervuren. Built 1904, still focusses on the Congo.
Paris. Built 1931, an architectural gem by the Bois de Vincennes.
Paris. Built 1931, an architectural gem by the Bois de Vincennes.

Thousands of people visited grand exhibitions in European cities from the 1850s, viewing objects and people from distant lands as well as the latest inventions and consumer goods. Believing that there would be continuing interest, imperial-minded groups established centres that included museums, libraries, galleries and a place for meetings. One of the first was the Imperial Institute in London, which followed the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1887. Its grand building in Kensington opened in 1893 but was so over-ambitious that half was occupied by the administative offices of London University from 1899. All but the tower was demolished in the 1950s; a Commonwealth Institute building in Holland Park is being replaced in the 2010s. Imperial College occupied the Victorian site.

In Belgium, where the Brussels-run Congo Independent State become the Belgian Congo in 1908, exhibitions of the 1890s in eastern Brussels’  Tervuren led to a massive  museum, now called the Royal Museum for Central Africa. It had galleries of stuffed animals, African crafts, and statues of Belgians who had famous careers in the Congo. Its 1960s feel is being changed, and its focus has widened to include concerts, lectures, and conservation. It houses the Stanley Archive.

The exhibition in Paris in 1931 bequeathed a museum about France’s empire. It had and still has a basement aquarium of tropical fish, and is decorated with African and Asian scenes. It became a museum of African and Oceanic art, and in 2003 became a museum of immigration. There were and are problems in its focus and public status.

Rome’s Africa Museum became the Istituto Italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente, focussing on art and no longer being a triumph of Italians in Libya, Ethiopia, and the Horn of Africa.

The British Empire and Commonwealth Museum opened in a 1840 railway station in Bristol in 2002, closed in 2008-2009, and has plans to relocate to London. The library of the Royal Commonwealth Society, a trove of government reports, private papers, diaries, and photographs, left London and became part of the library of Cambridge University.

Exhibiting empires in museums interested fewer citizens than promoters believed. The British Empire Exhibition of 1924, in northwest London’s Wembley, was so popular that it reopened in 1925. Its pavilions were then used for private manufacturing and the stadium (now rebuilt) was England’s major stadium, and used for the 1948 Olympic Games. A long road called Empire Way is a legacy of that Exhibition.

Artifacts from Africa and other once-imperial lands are found in museums of ethnology and anthropology, in local and city museums, in unlikely places such as Quex House near Ramsgate, Kent, and in military museums. Benin bronzes, Zulu weapons, canoes, spears, pots, carvings, cloth, religious artifacts, language recordings from as early as 1899, and other items – including portraits of generals and proconsuls, merchants and travellers, and diverse non-European peoples – and the very museum buildings in Paris and Tervuren remind the careful observer of the era of Empires, now fading from living memory.