Can a Museum Explain Imperialism?

By James, N. | Antiquity, December 2008 | Go to article overview
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Can a Museum Explain Imperialism?


James, N., Antiquity


Empires produced some of the ancient world's grandest monuments. No doubt that helps to account for successive major exhibitions recently mounted at the British Museum. The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army closed in April 2008, having drawn more visitors than any other since Treasures of Tutankhamun in 1972 (British Museum 2008: 66). There followed, from July to October, impressive and intriguing pieces on Hadrian, the Roman Emperor of the second century AD. The attention to large political systems is timely (James 2008: 201). Twenty-five years ago, Donald Horne (1984: 252) went so far as to declare that 'in the popularisations ... of the huge storehouse of ... artifacts ... that are such an extraordinary feature of our age .... we may find the only real potential for giving substance to human liberation'. Is this feasible in practice; and, if so, is a state museum with business sponsorship a likely place to find such enlightenment? Studying the archaeology in Hadrian, with The First Emperor as a foil, enabled us to assess these questions,

Study of empires

Ruling directly or indirectly, with more or less control over subjects' external relations if not home affairs too, empires are so diverse that one comparative study was reduced to defining imperialism as simply 'effective sovereignty' (Doyle 1986:21). The form of ancient or archaic imperialism can be specified more closely. First, without industrial technology, the communications upon which empires depend were strongly constrained--hence the prominence of roads among the Romans, the Chinese, or the Incas. Second, all archaic empires were aristocratic: they were dominated, directly or indirectly, not simply by one nation but, more particularly, by its nobles or by others co-opted to the metropolitan interest.

The history of empires has been studied from three theoretical perspectives (and varieties of each). The most familiar is the account of the emperors' and their antagonists' decisions and deeds. This one is almost taken for granted in the West because the Romans' is the case best known and the account of deeds the approach of most of the Romans' historians. Much of the epigraphy lends itself to this perspective too, of course. The British Museum's titles for its exhibitions reflected the biographical perspective. The sociological perspective, by contrast, is modern: in this view, people were the agents of institutions or movements, although personal agency is not precluded. Least familiar in the study of ancient empires is the ecological perspective, which seeks determining conditions beyond people or political and social organisations. Materialist and economic interpretations tend to depend on the sociological and ecological perspectives. Of course, this is perennial matter for archaeological debate about empires and other forms of organisation (see, for a pointed example, Paulsen 1981). Among archaeologists, historians and, no doubt, lay museum-goers too, preference for one perspective or another depends partly on their own political interests and cultural conditions. Decisions or conditions: which of these causes prevailed among the ancient empires, when, where?

The sociological perspective lends itself most easily to comparison and most readily reveals empires as a distinct form of organisation. Did all ancient empires work in the same ways under equivalent conditions? The short-lived Qin regime (that of the Terracotta Army) was succeeded by the Han empire, which was broadly similar and, surviving a crisis in the first century AD, still flourished during the Romans' apogee on the other side of the world. Both the Roman Empire and the Chinese were centred on large cities; they sought to dominate far-flung populations of similar size; and they faced certain challenges in common. How effective were they, then, how much difference did they make to everyday life in their respective metropolitan regions and provinces, and how did they affect subsequent history?

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