Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture and Popular Imagination in Late Victorian and Edwardian England / African Art at the Harn Museum

By Clarke, Christa | Art Journal, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture and Popular Imagination in Late Victorian and Edwardian England / African Art at the Harn Museum


Clarke, Christa, Art Journal


Annie E. Coombes. Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture and Popular Imagination in Late Victorian and Edwardian England. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994. 280 pp.; 112 b/w ills. $45.00

Robin Poynor. African Art at the Harn Museum: Spirit Eyes, Human Hands, exh. cat. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1995. 237 pp.; 17 color ills., 119 b/w. $49.95

Annie Coombes's Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture and Popular Imagination in Late Victorian and Edwardian England is an in-depth analysis of British perceptions of Africa and African culture at the turn of the century, beginning with the colonial scramble for African territories in 1890 and ending with the advent of World War I. Specifically, she addresses "the relationship between that knowledge of Africa and the African claiming to be 'objective truth,' through the discourse on African culture and society produced within the emergent anthropological establishment, and that image of Africa sustained in the popular consciousness as 'received' knowledge" (p. 3). Coombes, who teaches art history and cultural studies at Birkbeck College, University of London, presents a series of case studies closely examining that relationship in two cultural arenas: collections of African artifacts and large-scale exhibitions. She considers both on a regional as well as national level. Her analysis highlights the complex, and often conflicting, nexus of interests that constructed Africa for an equally diverse British public.

The expansion of the British Empire forms the historical backdrop for Coombes's research, a period that witnessed-not coincidentally-the establishment of anthropology as a science. Born of the 18th-century interest in taxonomic models, anthropology developed as a discipline primarily concerned with differences among various races. Anthropological theories regarding racial difference were conveyed to the public through exhibitions of African material culture and displays of Africans themselves. Thus, a central theme of this book is the construction of racial difference through spectacle, defined by Coombes as "the structural and dramatic means-the tropes-by which the British constituted a mythic Africa" (p. 85). Because these speculatory devices relied to a certain extent upon science to provide authenticity, a related concern for Coombes is the definition and scope of the public domain of anthropological knowledge of Africa in Britain.

One of the ways in which Coombes analyzes the complex relationship between the popular and the scientific is through a study of the display of Africans at large-scale national and regional exhibitions. While mock African villages and carefully choreographed dramas provided entertainment for a broad public, Coombes emphasizes "the degree to which references to ethnography and anthropology, if not their theoretical premises, were also exploited as a means of ensuring that the event would be credited with at least a veneer of authenticity" (p. 87). The scientific veneer of these displays facilitated the perpetuation (and acceptance) of racial stereotypes, which had, as Coombes convincingly demonstrates, differing ideological ends. The frequent portrayal of African women as downtrodden and oppressed, for example, is interpreted by Coombes as a veiled reminder to British women of their relatively privileged status in light of the burgeoning feminist movement.

The chapters focusing on ethnographic collections propose the museum as another site for the dissemination of scientific knowledge regarding Africa to a diverse public. With the rapid development of regional and national collections under British imperial expansion, the nascent discipline of museum ethnography struggled to demonstrate its relevance to both the state and the public. In her analysis, Coombes views the physical arrangement of an ethnographic collection as articulating a web of connected interests. Thus, typological classification of material culture in museums from primitive to complex not only demonstrated the evolutionary theories of anthropology, but also served national interests in justifying the need for technological advancement in the guise of colonization. …

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