While the British Empire as a collection of peoples has almost vanished into history, a vast material legacy remains in museums, archives and private collections of art. This talk looks at the diverse objects, artworks and specimens brought to Britain during the colonial and imperial periods; how and why they were acquired; and how they have been perceived over time. If the status of this vast hoard is contested today, it posed problems of interpretation and taxonomy even at the height of Empire. Early displays of the collections of the East India Company, and later, more ambitious attempts to create a museum of Empire in London or at the Indian Institute in Oxford were defeated by the sheer extent and mixed quality of content, and the inability to define its status and audience. Was it for display or reference, specialist research, or curiosity value? Was it for colonist or colonised? Today much of this disputed legacy is kept in reserve collections, with most of the East India Company‘s art collections held, like its paper archives, in the British Library.
Can digitisation create wider audiences and multiple narratives for the archive of Empire in a museum without walls or cultural boundaries?
Dr David Blayney Brown is Manton Curator of British Art at Tate Britain, London. He began his career at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. A specialist in British and European art of the Romantic period, and an authority on J.M.W. Turner, he has published, lectured and curated many exhibitions in Britain and abroad.
This conference is organised in close collaboration with the British Embassy Luxembourg.
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