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.

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  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. []
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