View of Asia Section of the Ethnographical Galleries on the first floor of the British Museum, London

The Postcolonial Nation in the Museum: World Appropriation and National Identity at the Humboldt Forum and British Museum

… the great increase in the medieval and ethnographical collections, and the great interest taken by the public in the British antiquity most especially, render it highly desirable, or rather quite necessary that a separate department should be created for them. The necessity for adopting this course seems self-evident to Mr Panizzi, and he thinks therefore that he need not dwell upon it.1

On 9 March 1866, the director of the British Museum, Anthony Panizzi, used these words to appeal to the trustees of the museum for the creation of a ‘Department of British and Medieval Antiquities and Ethnography’. Two months later, the founding of the department was approved. Along with Romano-British antiquities, medieval objects, and the ethnological holdings, it also housed the collection of European prehistory. While the quotation and the department name might initially suggest that the merging of these seemingly disparate holdings was an administrative decision guided by pragmatism, a closer look reveals that the contemporary social penetration of an evolutionist model of human cultural development formed its actual basis: the ethnological collections had been brought together with the British European archaeology collections ‘as materials for reconstructing the lost portions of European history’,2 as the newly appointed Keeper of the Department Augustus Wollaston Franks had said a little earlier about the central Christy holdings within the collection.

Tony Bennett, in his classic essay ‘The Exhibitionary Complex’,3 elaborated on the interrelated emergence of universal and national historical perspectives in the great museums of the nineteenth century. The essay lends itself as an analytical template for framing the development of the departmental structure in the British Museum: according to Bennett, the archaeological excavations that took place in the Middle East against the backdrop of the rivalry between Great Britain and France in the first half of the nineteenth century had initially opened up, in many museums, the perspective of a universal history of civilization that extended beyond the Middle Ages and the classical antiquities of Greece and Rome. This period saw the building of the British Museum in the Greek Revival style (1823–48) and the public’s enthusiasm for Egyptian and Assyrian antiquities. Slightly delayed, lobbying for the collection of national antiquities began with a memorandum by the head of the Department of Antiquities Edward Hawkins in 1828. The burgeoning enthusiasm for the subject throughout the country and the advocacy of numerous influential scholars and politicians in the years that followed eventually generated such pressure that Augustus Franks was hired in 1851, initially to set up a comparatively small ‘British Room’, until finally, under his leadership, the aforementioned ‘Department of British and Medieval Antiquities and Ethnography’ was established in 1866. In this department, the study and identitarian conception of the European and national ‘self’ was directly linked to the study and construction of the non-European ‘other’. So-called ‘primitive peoples’ were first presented in the ‘Ethnographic Room’ and from 1886 in the greatly expanded ‘Ethnographical Gallery’ on the upper floor of the museum as examples of an earlier stage in the development of the human species that Western civilizations had long left behind. Forever stagnant and ‘historyless’, they served as a representative counterpoint for a White–European ‘us’ presented as the winner of evolutionary history. The British nation, which exercised control over more ‘primitive races’ than any other nation in world history—as the official guide to the British Museum’s ethnological collections proudly proclaimed as late as 1910— was seen as the apex of this progressivist narrative.4

The former director of the British Museum and author of a history of the institution, David M. Wilson, has described the last forty years of the nineteenth century as the most important period in the history of the museum.5 It was during this time that the British Museum became the universal museum of cultural history that we know today. On the one hand, it undertook the separation from the natural history collection, and on the other, it was not until the founding of the Department of British and Medieval Antiquities and Ethnography and the almost exponential growth of the British Museum’s ethnological collection in the following decades that the separation between the cultural legacies of ‘civilizations’ and ‘primitive peoples’ became firmly established.

Detail from a view of the gallery of British Prehistory on the first floor of the British Museum, London
Detail from a view of the gallery of British Prehistory on the first floor of the British Museum, London. Photograph by Donald Macbeth, c.1923, licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

While reviewing the history of the ethnological collections in the British Museum’s Central Archive and repeatedly exploring the institution’s iconic galleries, I realized how enduring the principles of temporal and spatial ordering established in the nineteenth century remain today on a structural level—in terms of architecture, departmental structure, collection taxonomy, and museum narratives. To this day, the Africa Gallery is located in the basement of the building and separated from the other geographical galleries of the museum. To this day, a single department alone curates the huge collections on the three continents of Africa, America, and Australia/Oceania, while at the same time there are five separate departments for the regions ‘Greece and Rome’, ‘Egypt and Sudan’, ‘Middle East’, ‘Britain, Europe, and Prehistory’ and ‘Asia’. Continuing the taxonomic distinction between ‘high culture’ (‘civilizations’) and ‘world culture’, the Anthropology Library and Research Centre, originally planned as a driver of cross-departmental research for the entire British Museum after the dissolution of the Museum of Mankind in 1997, is once again listed on the British Museum website as a specific facility of the Department of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, and is not mentioned in connection with any of the other geographical departments.6 The sculpture galleries on Greece, Egypt, and Assyria, some of which are 170 years old, have changed little in their material core and thus continue to visually spin the narrative, established in the nineteenth century, of the progress of European–Mediterranean and Near Eastern civilizations. And as recently as March last year, the museum introduced a new digital exhibition trail on Greek Revival architecture at the British Museum, without a single critical mention of the connection between the British Museum’s exterior, established in the Georgian era, as an ideal Greek temple, and the Eurocentric vision of world history represented inside.7

It took the global moment of the Black Lives Matter protests in May 2020 to persuade the British Museum to make a thoughtful course correction regarding the treatment of the topic of colonialism in its permanent exhibition. After a closure due to Covid, the museum presented a ‘Collecting and empire’ trail through the museum’s various galleries for its reopening in August 2020, providing a discreet insight into the provenances of colonial objects through fifteen objects—which included neither the Parthenon sculptures nor the Benin bronzes. Thus, the objects selected were almost exclusively items that had been donated to or purchased by the museum. Since 2017, behind the scenes, the museum has been working on a fundamental reorientation of the British Museum as part of its new ‘Masterplan’, the implementation of which is scheduled to last more than ten years. According to the plan of museum director Hartwig Fischer, who surprisingly recently announced his retirement from his post in 2024, the completely redesigned permanent exhibition will abandon the previous Eurocentric perspective and give more weight and greater visibility to the collections from Africa, Oceania, and South America. So far, the British Museum has been keeping its cards close to its chest as regards the specific content of the planned exhibition. The most far-reaching insights into how  curators and museum management currently view the museum’s relationship to the colonial past, and on historiographical and scenographical ways of addressing it, can be drawn at the moment from an analysis of the ‘Collecting and empire’ trail. The curatorial team responsible for the trail—a team drawn from various departments of the museum— sees it as a permanently evolving, experimental rehearsal stage in preparation for the new permanent exhibition expected at the end of the 2020s.

Text panel of the ‘Collecting and empire’ trail next to statues from the Nereid Monument in the British Museum in London, October 2022
Text panel of the ‘Collecting and empire’ trail next to statues from the Nereid Monument in the British Museum in London, October 2022. Photograph by Philipp Molderings

The announced departure from a Eurocentric perspective and fundamental redesign of the traditional exhibition galleries represents a fundamental shift in the history of the British Museum. At its core, this consists in a disentanglement from the remnants of cultural infrastructures such as the Eurocentric history of progress and the construction of identity through ‘othering’, which were developed and deeply anchored in the British Museum in the nineteenth century. In my Ph.D. dissertation, I will contrast the central phase of the formation of these infrastructures, from 1830 to 1914, with the current impetus towards the decolonization of the museum since 2015. In the historical part of my work, I will focus in particular on modes of world appropriation and processes of national identity formation in the ‘Department of British and Medieval Antiquities and Ethnography’, which is an ideal object of study for this line of questioning due to the intellectual and material connection between British-national and non-European material. In the contemporary section, drawing on a combination of approaches from discourse and museum analysis, I examine the ‘Collecting and empire’ trail from the point of view of how the British Museum has reacted to the currently observable, fundamental reshaping of world appropriation in the context of efforts to decolonize the museum world since 2015, and which new discourses on collective identity are produced in the texts, images and scenographies within the permanent exhibition. I will focus here in particular on the question of what role the idea of ‘national’ identity—albeit possibly as a negative example or ‘taboo’—plays in this process.

However, my study is not limited to recent developments in the UK and the case of the British Museum. I juxtapose this with an examination of the Humboldt Forum‘s efforts, since 2015, to respond to the growing calls for institutional decolonization in Germany. Mirroring the structure of the chapters on the British Museum, I examine processes of world appropriation and national identity formation as they took place in the Königliches Museum für Völkerkunde Berlin—as the main predecessor institution of today’s Ethnological Museum in the Humboldt Forum—in the last third of the nineteenth century. I also explore the trails on the ‘Geschichte des Ortes’ (‘History of the Site’), the exhibition of the Ethnological Museum Berlin and, in particular, the ‘Provenienzforschungspfad’ (‘Provenance Research Trail’). This special trail, created in September 2021, leads through the ethnological collection and that of the Museum of Asian Art, and includes supplementary and corrective information on the origin of colonial objects. The latter can be interpreted as an expression of a change of direction along the lines of the art historian Bénédicte Savoy, whose call8 for more provenance research and a change in the basic attitude of the entire institution regarding the topic of colonialism, and whose media-effective resignation from the Forum’s academic advisory board, contributed to a change in personnel and the conceptual realignment of the Forum in 2018.

The combination and juxtaposition of the historical and contemporary time levels is intended to give a deeper historical dimension to the problems that have penetrated the public sphere in the course of the colonialism debates since 2015, and in this way enable a more differentiated understanding of how the two museums are currently renegotiating collective identity and memory culture between national and global perspectives.

My approach is based on the conviction that a vivid elaboration of the similarities and differences that existed in the nineteenth century from the perspective of institutional history and the history of ideas can also contribute to an understanding of the differences and similarities in the current handling of the problem of a necessary, critical revision of one’s own history and museum practices, which is currently posed in a similar way in all former colonial nations.


The featured image shows a view of the Asia Section of the Ethnographical Galleries on the first floor of the British Museum, London. Photograph by Donald Macbeth, before 1914, licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. © The Trustees of the British Museum



Cite this blog post
Philipp Molderings (2023, September 12). The Postcolonial Nation in the Museum: World Appropriation and National Identity at the Humboldt Forum and British Museum. German Historical Institute London Blog. Retrieved April 14, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/p1rc

  1. British Museum Central Archives, CE5/77, 9 March 1866 (Officers’ Reports to General Meetings and Standing Committee, 1805–69), cited in David M. Wilson, The British Museum. A History (London 2002), 142. []
  2. British Museum Central Archives, CE4/84, 7 November 1865, Document C (Officers’ Reports to General Meetings and Standing Committee, 1805–69. []
  3. Tony Bennett, ‘The Exhibitionary Complex’, New Formations, 4 (Spring 1988), 73–103. []
  4. ‘At no point in the world’s history has any one nation exercised control over so many primitive races as our own at the present time’. Hercules C. Read, Handbook to the Ethnographic Collections (Oxford, 1910), p. vi. On the construction of the White–European ‘we’ in nineteenth-century English museums, see also Bennett, ‘The Exhibitionary Complex’, 90–3. []
  5. See David Mackenzie Wilson, The British Museum: A History (London, 2002), 140. []
  6. The first to draw attention to this was Debbie Meniru, ‘How did the African collection end up in the basement?’, at [https://debbiemeniru.com/2021/03/27/african-collection-in-the-basement/], accessed 23 May 2023. See also Peter Gathercole and Brian Durrans, ‘Anthropology and the British Museum: On the Planned Abolition of the Department of Ethnography’, Anthropology Today, 20/4 (2004), 23–4. []
  7. See the website of the British Museum on the object trail ‘Greek Revival architecture: simplicity and splendour’, at [https://www.britishmuseum.org/visit/object-trails/greek-revival-architecture-simplicity-and-splendour], accessed 23 May 2023. []
  8. See Jörg Häntzschel, ‘Bénédicte Savoy über das Humboldt-Forum: “Das Humboldt-Forum ist wie Tschernobyl”’, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 20 July 2017, accessed 12 July 2023. []

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Philipp Molderings

He is a doctoral researcher at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf, where he works on a thesis on questions of postcolonialism and national identity in the context of Berlin's Humboldt Forum and the British Museum in London.

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