Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeNuméros93 PrintempsCultures of Display: The Mirror o...

Cultures of Display: The Mirror of Imperialism

Cultures de l’exposition : le miroir de l’impérialisme
John M. MacKenzie


Imperial history in general received very little attention in British universities until the 1950s. Until that time, such history was treated in highly ethnocentric ways, often with a specific focus on imperial rule from above. Most significantly, British domestic history was largely taught without any reference to its imperial dimension, except in a few restricted economic areas. When the revolution in the writing and teaching of history began to take place in the 1960s, the emphasis changed into aspects of resistance, notably the rise of nationalism and the study of instances of revolt within the empire. Yet there was a great deal of evidence for the material presence of empire within Britain, as well as the many examples of the visuality and cultural presence of imperialism. Indeed, these visual and cultural dimensions of imperial history seemed to offer an entirely different route into the history of the relationship between Britain, the British people and empire. The text, and the many documents in archives appeared to obscure as much as they illuminated. Such an approach soon produced negative responses. Bernard Porter famously argued that the British were indeed ‘absent-minded imperialists’ because they took very little interest in empire, with the imperial influence on British culture being essentially minimal. Andrew Porter similarly argued that missionaries were essentially anti-imperial and should be absolved from any guilt surrounding the processes of empire. However, the development of a great range of studies of cultural aspects of empire seemed to contradict both these approaches. Studies of the theatre, of film, exhibitions, museum displays, advertising, ephemera, heroic popular biographies and novels, as well as emigration propaganda seemed to indicate the pervasiveness of the imperial presence in British culture. Missionaries while often critical of specific events seemed to be swept up in this all-embracing culture. It became obvious that imperial images and ideas were used by so many companies and agencies that they had to be regarded as having a positive resonance among the population. Moreover, local studies of the material presence of cities and of the press (together with the cross-over from the presentation of fact into fiction) seemed to suggest the ubiquity of the imperial presence in British culture.

Top of page

Full text

1It is an extraordinary fact that at British universities until relatively recent times, the domestic history of the country was largely taught without reference to its imperial dimensions. Perhaps the only exception to this was in key economic areas such as the cotton industry, the importation of sugar and other commodities, but even here the manner of teaching was very guarded. Since there was very little crossover between domestic history and empire, evidence of the penetration of British culture by images and references to empire was largely discounted. This seemed to me to be profoundly strange and my discontent stimulated the publication of my book Propaganda and Empire (MacKenzie 1984). It was initially highly controversial, even to the extent of doing my career harm. But that is often the fate of those who have new and unpopular ideas. It was badly received for a number of reasons. For a start, imperial history was seldom taught in undergraduate courses. To use an Indian word, it was not considered ‘pukka’. The main bill of fare of the undergraduate course was medieval and modern British and European history, with perhaps a little American. Ancient history was taught in Classics departments. In my undergraduate days in Scotland, there was no empire or imperialism anywhere in the extensive menu of courses. A clue to this lies in a remark of a hoary old Professor of Medieval History who said that the history that interested me was only journalism. There was a sense that there was no historiography to build on and without such a tradition to bounce off no proper scholarship was possible. Hence in a curious way the lack of a historiography was self-sustaining.

2Such history as did exist was certainly written from an imperialist point of view, largely ethnocentric and self-justificatory in national terms. Indeed, as I found when researching Propaganda and Empire there had been very little change in this respect between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, between Sir John Seeley and the constitutional expert Sir Reginald Coupland. Both of them were, in different ways, patriotic imperialists and their knighthoods indicated the approval of the Establishment. The development of an anti-imperial nationalist historiography lay in the future and when it did emerge it had a negative effect upon the writing of imperial history, which became passé almost overnight. Inevitably, the new writing concentrated on the nation and not the supra-national inter-continental unit of empire. Starting from the 1960s, what interested historians, of both European and ‘Third World’ ethnicities, was resistance, resistance to imperial power and its eventual overthrow. As in the writing of all history, historians were interested in the roots of contemporary events, in the antecedents of resistance movements over the longue durée and the manner in which such movements fed into the emergence of political parties and constitutional forms of opposition, leading ultimately to decolonisation. ‘The Rise of Nationalism’ became a common cliché for historical writing and for the development of new history courses. As always, politics remained at the core of such an approach. Economic history was a highly developed field, but it was one in which the imperial relationship still had a tendency to be underestimated. Empire was also downplayed in the field of intellectual history where philosophical trends and major movements were more important than ideas relating to the growth and decline of modern empire. It has often been said that the British left theoretical positions to the French. The notion of social history seemed very innovative in 1960s Britain, but it was mainly concerned with the formation of social classes and such developments as labour history. As for cultural history, it was best left to other disciplines, to anthropology or highly specialised studies like musicology, art, architectural or theatre histories in which the development of the specific art forms was often more important than the surrounding geo-political contexts. Globalisation and inter-cultural, trans-national world movements had yet to strike home.

3It was quite clear that if imperial history was to take a cultural turn and develop a new direction, its foundations had to be transformed. In such a revolutionary change, it seemed vital to escape from the text. Empires are clearly visual phenomena. Throughout human history they have been about display. Almost all the empires in the Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Empire (2016) which I had the honour to edit were about such multifarious and diurnal forms of imperial exhibiting. You cannot have a self-effacing empire. Empires constantly remind subordinate peoples and their own citizens of their power and authority. It is the only way to maintain self-confidence and psychological conviction. A glance at the remains of the Roman Empire in southern France more than confirms this. The imposition of rule may always be the same, through the military and the iron fist, but the techniques of display change. Throughout history they have been exhibited through the militarisation of landscapes, the creation of camps and forts, through stones, masonry, other building materials, sculptures, and visual proclamations of power and laws. Stone stelae of varying size and grandeur carved with sculptures and often texts are a global phenomenon in many empires in the Mediterranean world, Asia, and South America. They represent the urge to deposit a constructed material presence in the environment. Indeed, the surviving ones are invariably the main sources for dynastic, legal and other information about these empires. In modern times, the opportunities for the media of display are extensive and strikingly visual. This visuality is strongly represented in my recent publication about the built environment of the empire, revealing the manner in which the British displayed themselves through buildings, towns, cities and also rural structures, all exhibiting imperial transformations in global trade, forms of administration, technologies, new forms of instruction and entertainment, all reflected in social change, notably the rise of the bourgeoisie (MacKenzie 2020). My next book, The Cultural History of the British Empire, is even more about the cultures of display. It has chapters on the globalisation of western sports, on ceremonial, statuary and sculpture, art, photography, theatre, as well as the press, film and radio. Previous books have been about the dissemination of the idea of the museum around the globe, the architectural expression and therefore material presence of such museums, and the dynamic represented in the development of their displays, from natural history to human cultures (MacKenzie 2009). This work has been much developed by Sarah Longair and John McAleer (Longair and McAleer 2012).

4That fascination with and concentration upon the visual, upon display, is what distinguishes the work of so many of us from the research of historian predecessors who were rooted in the archive, the library and the text. It may be that histories of administration, politics, economies and statistics, literary forms, intellectual ideas, spirituality and much else are dependent on such rooting. But studies of the cultural aspects of empire have to leap free of the text. While archives and documents of course remain important, the fact is that the true nature of empire and imperialism can only be divined through an exploration of their visual and environmental presences. This is abundantly apparent in empires of the deeper past and it is no less true of recent empires, although in the modern case the range of sources massively expands. My critics have tended to be textually bound historians who have looked askance at what they have seen as an unprofessional concentration on display and the visual. This is more difficult for them now that there are so many of us operating in this way.

5Understanding the critics is essential in such developments. My supposed adversary Bernard Porter has always been an archival and textual historian. His first book, Critics of Empire (Porter 1968) set out to delineate the critics of empire who seemed so much more attractive than the effusions of its protagonists. Such critics also helped to divest the British, and perhaps particularly the working class, of any collaboration in and guilt for empire. Thus, Porter was able to insist that empire was the preoccupation of self-interested elements of the population, those concerned with imperial companies or with aspects of administration within the colonies. If it could be restricted to the self-interested, then others could be absolved. This was symbolised by that oft-quoted suggestion that discussions of imperial issues cleared the House of Commons of the great majority of parliamentarians, leaving a small group of committed or oppositional parliamentarians to discuss prospects, problems and issues. The other Porter (no relation) is Andrew. He wrote a book which argued that missionaries, the most visible of the interest groups who attached themselves to the extension of imperial rule in the nineteenth century, were by and large not imperialists. In his title Religion versus Empire? (Porter 2004), the centre of gravity is that oppositional word ‘versus’ and the question mark at the end. This constituted his riposte to the southern African anthropologists John and Jean Comaroff who argued forcibly not only that missionaries were deeply implicated in the processes and expansion of empire, but more significantly that they were profoundly cultural imperialists consciously setting out to overlay traditional African lifestyles and values with those borne by the imperial missionaries from Europe (Comaroffs, 1991 and 1997). Both Porters are parti pris. Bernard is a man of the Left who considers that imperialism was so distasteful that a general public, let alone a working class, could not possibly have been implicated. While Bernard is not a practising Christian, Andrew is and has a distinct interest in the absolution of the missionaries from its taint. They were expanding the bounds of Christendom, as enjoined by Christ, free from the stain of the worst excesses of imperialism. Of course, it is undoubtedly true that missionaries were often fierce opponents of nakedly brutal imperial methods whether in Leopold’s Congo or Cecil Rhodes’s southern Africa. Evidence lies in the fact that they were deeply distrusted by white settlers and often by colonial administrators. But figures of conversions prove that their cause was indeed helped by the extension of imperial power, that they generally sheltered under the umbrella of imperial authority and their objectives were a central part of cultural conversion, both religious and secular, at the heart of colonialism. They were invariably in command of western-style educational provision for indigenous peoples, and their world was a world of display in the building of missions, churches, post offices, sports fields and much else.

6Both Porters have devoted most of their professional research to the archive and base their arguments on texts. Andrew, for example, has never been interested in the popular expressions of missionary activity, the propaganda through which it was promoted, missionary exhibitions, popular works and biographies, magazines and images. Even in his alleged rebuttal of my ideas, Bernard was clearly basing arguments on texts and not on artefacts or the many aspects of the visual display of empire. Both Bernard and Andrew are devoted to conventional approaches and ideas. So why did I break loose? I did do a great deal of archival work in my early career, sitting in the characterful old Public Record Office in Chancery Lane in central London long before its transformation into the National Archives in Kew. I worked through an entire sequence of Colonial Office documents relating to the British South Africa Company and the conquest of Central Africa. I found it all fascinating, but eventually I rebelled against excessive concentration on the text. The archives, I was convinced, were characterised as much by what was not there as by what was present. Documents can at times obscure as much as they illuminate.

Personal Experience and Approaches to History

7Personal experiences invariably offer explanations for particular interests. Born in England during the Second World War, I was brought up in the City of Glasgow. I lived among the fabric of the city, in the names of its streets, their furniture and statuary, the city’s theatres and exhibitions, and in its great riverine dockland. All of these gave me highly significant and visual messages about empire. In the Church of Scotland of the 1950s I could not escape its obsession with missions and missionaries or its hero-worship of David Livingstone. I realised just how potent the church was in disseminating news and information about a wider world of empire, not least through sermons and lectures by missionaries, all intent on raising money for their enterprises.

8I was influenced in two other ways. In the 1950s I joined my parents in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) at a particularly impressionable period of my life. I was often alone in the afternoons after school and explored the environs of our town, Ndola, with its African villages, streams, gardens, and winding paths, soaking up the atmosphere of colonial Africa. Later I found myself in southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) teaching (mainly African students) in the University in Salisbury (Harare). At that point in the early 1970s, oral history had become the latest historical research fashion, adopting some of the techniques of the anthropologist. I duly embarked upon a research project which was concerned with the technological and trading interface between pre-colonial and colonial history, with environmental changes, as well as with the personal experiences of labour migrants. This gave me further insights into all the riches that are not to be found in documents, including essential material about the life of the village, inter-personal relations, as well as individual emotions of those involved in the dislocations and disorientations of labour migration, the transfer into new and very different social and economic contexts. To a certain extent these were not unlike the parallel, if sometimes materially different, experiences of European migrants and Asian indentured labourers, moving across the world as part of the imperial process of what the historian James Belich called ‘the replenishing of the earth’ (Belich 2009).

9There was another influence on my ideas. With an interest in archaeology, I joined ‘digs’ in Scotland relating to the Roman frontier. Here I realised the vital necessity of understanding the evidence of the material presence of an imperial force. This provided fresh conviction of the need to think visually and aurally about all aspects of display. Imperial display was to be found in a whole variety of forms of entertainment, in theatres and streets, but also public forms created by the military, not least through the then almost ubiquitous presence of marching troops and military bands. Moreover, it became apparent that collectables constituted a significant source. Among these were postcards, a form of communication that had created a vast photographic archive, one which also disseminated all sorts of propaganda, information about imperial shipping and other transport companies, advertisements of commercial companies displaying products both at the supply and distribution ends of their operations. A tremendous example of the latter was with regard to tea. But propagandist cards were also used by Christian missions and emigration societies, even those with a more national and official remit. Even the humble cigarette card was in the business of propagating not just sales (the urge to acquire the complete set), but also information about phenomena like military regiments, the navy, colonial heroes, migration, and much else. Ephemera, wholly beneath the consideration of conventional historians, seemed a necessary part of the evidential battery of the historian interested in popular culture.

10A combination of these influences indicated that there was an alternative imperial history, one much more connected with the lives of ordinary people, ordinary people who might be thinking of migrating to hopefully new lives in the colonies or the United States. These were ordinary people who might go down to the theatre or the music hall to enjoy entertainment releasing them from the grind and hardships of everyday work. Ordinary people who might go to one of the great exhibitions of the age, exhibitions which, while they took place in major centres, were often accessible through organised trips. Ordinary people who, with increasing literacy and the availability of public libraries, might have access to a whole range of newspapers and even illustrated journals, above all perhaps ordinary people who were aware of the great range of juvenile literature now available to train and inspire the young. Juvenile literature has inspired a considerable amount of scholarship analysing works that were disseminated through schools and churches. Perhaps also ordinary people who were beginning to find the inspirational—and widely available—biographies of imperial heroes and notable missionaries. A very quick glance at circulation figures revealed the very wide distribution of such materials, even percolating down from middle and lower-middle-classes to the working class. Such a class-specific analysis is certainly important, but the saturation of British culture with such publications and visual stimuli is hard to gainsay.

Developments in the Cultural History of Empires

11Fortunately, consideration of the cultures of display and the cultural history of empire can no longer be seen as eccentric. The Manchester UP ‘Studies in Imperialism’ series was founded in 1984 and as of July 2020 has reached no fewer than 170 books. Many books have also appeared from other publishers. The themes of Propaganda and Empire have been tremendously extended and new ones opened up. This publishing bonanza has inevitably revealed omissions from Propaganda and Empire as well as areas inadequately covered. The theatre and the cinema, for example, have received a great deal more treatment.

12While The Absent-Minded Imperialists (Porter 2004) is intended as a rebuttal of the fundamental arguments of Propaganda and Empire, it is striking that Porter never produces alternative evidence. He has never, for example, convincingly answered the points made about patriotic scenes and accompanying songs in the music hall. Nor has he answered the argument about working-class clubs and the manner in which they changed and became more imperial in their entertainment offerings later in the nineteenth century. Most importantly, he has never convincingly overturned the analysis of imperial plays. These have been extensively studied through the Lord Chamberlain’s Collection in the British Museum Library manuscripts department. All plays in the nineteenth century were submitted to this functionary to ensure their suitability and respectability for the London audience, censorship in other words. It was therefore the best place to find the texts of large numbers of plays. Any reading of the plots of these reveals the extent to which they were about stirring imperial and colonial events. But Porter, using only the titles, baldly states that few of these plays had any imperial contexts. Thus, it might well be thought that a play entitled Cheer Boys Cheer! had nothing to do with empire when in reality it dealt with the British South Africa Company advance into Rhodesia, the overblown activities of capitalism in southern Africa and the 1893 Ndebele war as part of the conquest. It had a long and exciting run, one that was decidedly imperialist in its thrust. But other scholars now work in the field. The American theatre historian Marty Gould has taken Porter to task and convincingly demonstrated that imperial and colonial events were a standard theme of theatrical offerings in the nineteenth century (Gould 2011). This could also be taken back to the eighteenth century, for example in plays about India and the satirising of British ‘nabobs’, their wealth and influence. With Gould we find a specialist theatre historian unveiling the power of theatrical presentations to propagate both news of and ideas about the ideology of the imperial advance.

13The cinema is of course closely related to the theatre with early cinematic performances taking place in theatres, as well as in many more local sites such as village halls and other buildings, even perhaps in schools. Later dedicated cinemas were constructed in large numbers and by the inter-war years of the twentieth century the cinema can be seen as the classic source of popular entertainment for a very high proportion of the population. Studies of the ideological content of films have demonstrated just how pervasive imperial themes were down to at least the 1950s (Chapman and Cull 2009), while a collection of essays extended the field in the direction of documentary and other supposedly factual film-making (Grieveson and McCabe 2011). All such work has further demonstrated the public exposure of missions and the centrality of empire in popular feature films as well as in both documentary and newsreel material. Moreover, there has been a much greater understanding of the range of media outlets through which imperial issues were propagated. One of these was the BBC, as I recognised in my contribution to a collection of essays Imperialism and Popular Culture (MacKenzie ed. 1986). The dominant figure of this English-speaking medium was John Reith, a fervent patriot and imperialist with an almost mystical belief in the power of radio to draw the empire together in a common ideology. Now Simon Potter’s book Broadcasting Empire offers both extension and greater nuance to such ideas (Potter 2012). There has also been work on the technical aspects of radio, while Vincent Kuitenbrouwer has demonstrated the significance of Dutch activities in this area and the manner in which by the inter-war years radio was breaking down the media frontiers of empire (Kuitenbrouwer 2020). Moreover, radio was vital in the propagation of the ‘cultural bond’ of empire, the passion for imperial sports.

14Another vital area for understanding the display of imperial rule and its concomitant commercial and cultural connections is the extraordinary tradition of imperial exhibitions that developed in the nineteenth century and continued into the twentieth, a tradition with European-wide dimensions, not least in France. An early work in the Studies in Imperialism series was a survey of such exhibitions by Greenhalgh (1988). One of the features of these exhibitions which was standard fare at least from the 1880s was the astonishing display of peoples from the colonies, a sort of human ethnographic procession. Here was a potent mirror of imperialism in which indigenous people, often in a trans-imperial way, provided a supposedly entertaining spectacle of ‘exotic races’ in dubiously recreated domestic and family circumstances. These so-called ‘native villages’ created opportunities for ethnic and sometimes erotic voyeurism. Such exhibitions, with their displays of the exotic, took place throughout Britain and indeed the empire itself. Their scale and economic significance was considerable, as in Glasgow between 1888 and 1938, while the mounting of an exhibition was a rite of passage of most colonial cities, in Canada, East and southern Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere such that the propaganda of the exhibitionary complex was a universal phenomenon. Ethnic displays have received a great deal more attention, in Sadiah Qureshi’s magnificent Peoples on Parade (Qureshi 2011). While exposing some of the less savoury aspects of these displays, Qureshi nonetheless ended her work with the strikingly balanced conclusion by suggesting that the legacy of such displays shaped early anthropological enquiry and possibly enhanced encounters between peoples and attitudes to ethnic difference. While they clearly contributed to the underpinning of contemporary racial ideas, it is true that such displays took diverse forms, also appearing at seaside resorts and in missionary exhibits. The very important French dimension of this has been surveyed in striking depth by the Zoos Humains project of Pascal Blanchard and associates. This has also been a significant aspect of the multifarious productions of ACHAC, L’Association pour la Connaissance de l’Histoire de l’Afrique Coloniale.

15But apart from ethnic voyeurism, indigenous peoples at exhibitions appeared in more respectable roles, for example as vendors of colonial products such as tea and coffee, perhaps serving in refreshment rooms where visitors partook of such beverages. Even more significantly, however, indigenous crafts persons came from imperial possessions in the Middle East and India, to demonstrate their skills in metal working, wood carving and even ceramic production. Here they were participating in the reaction of the arts and crafts movement to what seemed to be the degraded aesthetic values of the industrially produced equivalents. This vital contribution to the arts and crafts response to industrialism was highlighted in a lecture associated with an Orientalism exhibition at the Tate Gallery London, subsequently published in a collection with the title Orientalism Revisited (MacKenzie 2013). This seemed to reflect the manner in which Edward Said’s construction of Orientalism of 1978 was wholly textually based. A stronger concentration on visual representations in association with contemporary historical movements and events suggests a different view. In a recent exhibition at the British Museum in London, it is apparent that many representations of the Middle East revealed a genuine admiration for the metal work, ceramics, and fabrics of these cultures, admiration which was expressed in that most sincere form of flattery, efforts at reproduction and emulation (Greenwood and de Guise 2019). Responses to Oriental arts have to be placed in the context of class analysis as well as into the context of the major social, cultural and economic dynamic of the nineteenth century. Of course, the display of empire and its agents through art has been a vital study. Another early book in the Manchester series was concerned with the projection of the military in such visual representations, inevitably much influenced by the military’s role in empire, a theme much developed since then (Hichberger 1988). More recently, the role of art in the presentation of empire has been more extensively studied in many works, including two collections of essays of 2007 (Barringer, Quilley and Fordham eds. 2007 and McAleer and MacKenzie eds. 2015) and a study of landscape in the Studies in Imperialism series (McAleer 2010). In a related field that combines buildings, art, artefacts and economics, Stephanie Barczewski has demonstrated the extraordinarily varied influences that empire brought to bear upon British country houses (Barczewski 2014). Such a study reflects the penetration of imperial influences into so many areas of British life and its built environment.

16Of course, the essence of the economic dimensions of the exhibitions and even illustrations of the Orient in all its guises was conveyed through advertising, often material designed to provide significant memories for visitors of very exciting events in their lives. Oral evidence has provided insights into the great excitement such exhibitions engendered. Advertisements were additionally common in many other settings and any examination of them swiftly reveals just how many companies used imperial events and contexts to advertise their wares. This was much developed in an important work on imperial advertising (Ramamurthy 2003). The range of such commercial advertising using imperial images is extraordinarily diverse and reveals the extent to which the British and other publics were indeed exposed to a great deal of imperial visual material. It is this field, as well as that of the theatre and cinema which seems to me to answer the notion that such ideas were irrelevant to an absent-minded British public.

17Other cultural areas of significance in processes of imperial display include the influence of the churches, the content of the press, and the power of dissemination of emigration information and propaganda to many parts of Britain. We should also take note of the intellectual expressions of the imperial thrust. There remains an enormous field here, including considerations of the contribution made by colonial rule to various aspects of political theory and even to the development of notions of liberalism. It is also interesting that so many fields came to be reflected through the mirror of Empire. One excellent example is the study of the classics and of the ancient world, which has been given some attention in a succession of essays addressing various different aspects of the relationship in recent times (Bradley 2010).

18Press reports constitute a source which has often been ignored by historians, not least in respect of Christian missions. These means of more widespread communication with the populace supplement popular missionary biographies, pamphlets, newsletters, exhibitions and visual iconography. All of these are important in demonstrating ways in which empire both in a geographical and political sense has been projected to the people. Research in the press in relation to the Scottish churches produces remarkable results, though there are undoubted parallels in other denominations. It is indeed astonishing just how extensive were press reports in the Scottish newspapers of the annual general assemblies of both the Established and Free Churches of Scotland, not least in respect of foreign missions. In even local Scottish newspapers, meetings were prominently reported, often closely linked to the national imperial impulse. Such reports indicate that there is no question that the Christian missions saw themselves as a noble and legitimate part of the cultural conversion of the world through the extension of imperial rule. This is confirmed by the extraordinary range of popular biographies that were published and seem to have had considerable sales and wide circulation. They were thus central agents in the overall cultural thrust of empire. The popular biographies turned missionaries into heroic figures to match the other major heroes of empire that have been analysed in sophisticated detail by Berny Sèbe (2013). The heroic activities and sometimes deaths of missionaries took place in exotic parts of the world, particularly Africa, Asia and the South Pacific, in environmental and ethnic contexts, and against considerable medical and other problems, which certainly placed them in the Valhalla of imperial heroes. This has been extensively charted in the case of the myth of David Livingstone, who was portrayed after his death as one of the great heroes of the age, transcending any specific denomination, Protestant or Catholic (MacKenzie 1990; Lewis 2018). In these ways the Presbyterian churches certainly had a key role not only in imperial expansion but also in a sense of Scottish national identity that contributed to the need for a ‘four nations’ analysis of empire. It is a field to which other historians have contributed, such as Breitenbach (2009) in the case of Scotland, and for the Congregationalists in the work of Thorne (Thorne 1999).

19If the projection of missionary activity in the wider world to a British public can be gleaned from the press, so can many other imperial issues. There has been a lot of research focused on the press and empire, notably by Simon Potter and Chandrika Kaul. In addition to their notable single-authored works, Potter edited a pioneering conference book with a considerable range of essays examining the reporting of various events and issues with contributions also on the Scottish and Welsh press, as well as significantly on Ireland (Potter 2004). Kaul’s work followed with significant chapters on South Africa and India, as well as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Penang (Kaul 2006). Kaul has mainly published on the reporting of imperial issues in British India (Kaul 2014). More recently, another scholar, Andrew Griffiths, has set about bringing together the press and fictional representation of empire. This work has established that there was a close relationship between the new sensational journalism of the late nineteenth century and heroic fiction in promoting imperial ideology (Griffiths 2015). Thus, there was a close ideological synergism in the crossover between fact and fiction, sometimes known in modern times as ‘faction’. This was a potent combination in popular culture. These various works on the press have convincingly revealed the considerable coverage of empire in Britain, not least when more advanced printing technologies rendered papers cheaper to produce with more striking illustrated content. This ensured wide circulations while newspapers were also available in public libraries which had appeared throughout Britain from the 1840s. Another significant aspect of press coverage was the extraordinary series of royal tours of the British Empire which started in Canada and India in the 1870s and continued in a regular and highly way until modern times. In addition to the display of such tours in the press and in newsreel films, as well as on the radio, a large number of contemporary books were published to chronicle them. Although the books were less successful in holding up a mirror to empire than the other media, nonetheless these tours have recently received a good deal of scholarly attention (Reed 2016; Aldrich and McCreery 2016). In addition, the Royal Collections mounted a special exhibition of the many gifts received by the Prince of Wales on his celebrated tour of India in 1875–76. This appeared in Leicester, London and Edinburgh, accompanied by a lavishly illustrated catalogue (Meghani 2017). When King George V and Queen Mary visited India for the Delhi Durbar of 1911, the press reactions were extraordinarily extensive, as was the widespread showing of the newsreel films associated with the durbar (MacKenzie 2015). Thus, an eager public could become aware of empire, through the popular mirror of royalty. This has now received attention in a number of publications.

20In recent decades there has been a great deal of work on migration. Much of this has been about the mechanics of migration, the journeys, the settlement and the disorientation of migrants. But there has also been work on the recruitment of migrants, particularly in Scotland. In the later nineteenth century, migration agents scoured the country and lectures were regularly delivered on the positive prospects for settlers. Moreover, newsagents and many other shop outlets carried posters and information about migration, often acting as agents for the booking of passages. A good example is the significant printing establishment, Robert Smail’s, in the town of Innerleithen in East Lothian. It acted as an agent and retained extensive records of the migrants it handled. While the United States was a vital recipient of such migration during the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century, flows later changed. There was, for example, a little-noticed migration to southern Africa from the 1880s and 1890s, while by the 1920s the Empire had begun to take over as the USA imposed quotas (MacKenzie with Dalziel 2007). Imperial migration to Canada, Australia and New Zealand continued throughout the period and was the subject of a good deal of visual display (Harper 1998). For the British, empire was available for settlement as they pleased.

21One of the significant scholarly developments in the consideration of cultures of display has been the realisation of the intertwining of the local and the global. We have already encountered this in respect of missionary publicity, in exhibitions and in lectures about exploration and emigration. The influence of Glasgow on my thinking about empire was given scholarly substance in an article on ‘Glasgow: Imperial Municipality’ to a volume with the title Imperial Cities (MacKenzie 1999). This book had chapters on various imperial cities in Europe, including London and Marseilles. The theme was developed in a conference which took place in Liverpool on that city’s imperial connections resulting in the publication of The Empire in One City? (Haggerty, Webster and White, eds. 2008). Liverpool was regarded as such a quintessential global port that its warehouses were copied in the Puerto Madero in Buenos Aires, as a plaque there indicates (personal observation). In recent months we have seen the publication of a book charting the relationship between Edinburgh and India (Jeffery, ed. 2019). Another important city study has been of a Scottish city whose economy was tightly connected with empire, a relationship that was very much reflected in the quantity of information in the local press (Tomlinson 2014). In another example of the penetration of the local by the global, and following the Barczewski precedent mentioned above, in 2016 I delivered a keynote at a conference in a country house in Scotland in which I chose to examine the local multifarious connections with empire, with money coming from the West Indies to buy estates and country houses, and later from the compensation given to slave owners for the abolition of slavery. Those connections were extraordinarily deep and diverse, unquestionably demonstrating cultures of display. Such local and global connections remain a rich source of further studies.

22If we can carry these ideas forward from the nineteenth into the twentieth centuries, it is also the case that we can work them back into the eighteenth. Gould’s book on the theatre took the analysis back in this way. In addition, we have the striking work of Kathleen Wilson. In a number of authored and edited books, she has taken these issues back into the century of Anglo-French conflict and empire formation in a variety of ways, in theatrical presentations, imperial hero-worship, aspects of the press, statuary and others (Wilson 1994, 2003 and 2004).

23Despite the extensive examples of the cultures of display that have now been unveiled, it was not really until the twentieth century that governments and official sources set about propaganda relating to empire. There was some quasi-official propaganda before then, particularly for example in the creation of the Imperial Institute in London in the 1890s. But governmental involvement in generating such propaganda is always stimulated by warfare, as it was from the time of the Anglo-Boer War onwards. It also came to be generated by economic problems, which explains the manner in which it reached its height in the years between the First and Second World Wars with such bodies as the Empire Marketing Board, the provision of emigration information and other activities of the Imperial Institute in South Kensington (Constantine 1986). Moreover, governments were notably involved in the creation of the imperial exhibitions of the time, even if they might have regarded it as arms’ length involvement. The BBC seemed to be an independent body, yet it was susceptible to the propagation of imperial ideas and information about empire through the new medium of sound.

24Nevertheless, it can be argued that such government intervention, which often arouses suspicions, was invariably unnecessary. Empire became the central fact of national life in Britain at least from the middle of the eighteenth century prominently displayed through the great conflict with France for world power. Such a key aspect of patriotic nationalism inevitably had its cultural manifestations, and it seems to me that they were ubiquitous in so many of the entertainment and print forms of the age and continued into the era of apparent success. It has often been objected that while we can prove that ‘there was a lot of it about’, it is more difficult to prove that it had any effect upon the consumers, the people. Did anyone actually take any notice of those displays that constituted the images of imperialism? But there are surely a number of objections to such a cynical view:

  1. Empire was so central to so many entertainment forms that entrepreneurs must have been convinced that such ideas had a positive resonance among their audiences. In out of the way places, such as the Lighthouse Museum in Arbroath in eastern Scotland I have found evidence of this. There, on a wall, is displayed a theatre poster of performances in the town. Both the plays advertised there have imperial contexts.

  2. Empire permeates so many advertising images that it is hard to imagine that advertisers would have associated themselves with allusive imagery that would have stimulated either indifference or negative sensations among customers.

  3. Empire became the natural backdrop, the global context for the entire adventure tradition, a tradition reflected not only in a staggeringly extensive corpus of juvenile literature but also in publications for adults. This adventure tradition manifested itself in the exciting business of exploration and the unveiling of a supposedly unknown world, in key phenomena such as military and naval exploits, Christian missions, as well as migration. It was so powerful that it made an easy transition into the cinema, reaching a great climax in the imperial films of the 1930s and beyond. Box office returns indicate that such films were immensely popular. The adventure tradition became embedded in a patriotic history. It could be used to energise the young into a sense of the romance of national life and its apparent successes in conflicts and the grappling with the outer world. Some, however, may object that it is difficult to separate a generalised world view from an imperial one. But it is surely the imperial connection and the possibility of using those possessive expressions ‘we’, ‘us’, ‘ours’, which should be banned from modern historical discourse, but which in the past brought that sense of possessiveness into global geographical phenomena. They were phenomena that carried a sense of patriotic national pride into universal contexts, creating for the British a notion of exceptionalism which they have not entirely lost. For all these reasons, the highly visible and noisy business of empire can surely be described as a dominant ideology.

25To conclude, when I ventured into these controversies in the 1980s I really did not have much conception of just how extensive the field would become, or how many scholars would take up these themes. Various different cultures of display did indeed hold up a mirror to imperialism, a mirror that could often be a distorting one or one that was fogged by the steam and heat of controversy. But nonetheless, the escape from the archives and from a concentration on text could lead to so much more illumination than the older conventional historians would ever allow. The odyssey I embarked on more than forty years ago, based on experiences of the previous few decades, has become much more extensive than I expected as many other scholars took up so many themes that I had barely dreamt of. However much the critics may still be sharpening their knives, it seems that the notion of an empire of display has come a long way over forty years and still has much life in it.

Top of page


Aldrich, Robert, and Cindy Mccreery, eds. Crowns and Colonies: European Monarchies and Overseas colonies. Manchester: MUP, 2016.

Barczewski, Stephanie. Country Houses and the British Empire. Manchester: MUP, 2014.

Barringer, Timothy, Geoff Quilley and Douglas Fordham, eds. Art and the British Empire. Manchester: MUP, 2007.

Belich, James. Replenishing the Earth. Oxford: OUP, 2009.

Bradley, Mark, ed. Classics and Imperialism in the British Empire. Oxford: OUP, 2010.

Breitenbach, Esther. Empire and Scottish Society: The Impact of Foreign Missions at Home, c. 1790 to c. 1914. Edinburgh: EUP, 2009.

Chapman, James, and Nicholas Cull. Projecting Empire: Imperialism and Popular Cinema. London: Tauris, 2009.

Comaroff, Jean, and John Comaroff. Of Revelation and Revolution (2 vols.). Chicago: CUP, 1991 and 1997.

Constantine, Stephen. Buy and Build: The Advertising Posters of the Empire Marketing Board. London: H.M.S.O., 1986.

Gould, Marty. Nineteenth-Century Theatre and the Imperial Encounter. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Geenhalgh, Paul. Ephemeral Vistas: Exhibitions and Expositions Universelles. Manchester: MUP, 1988.

Greenwood, William, and Lucien De Guise, eds. Inspired by the East: How the Islamic World Influenced Western Art. London: British Museum, 2019.

Grieveson, Lee, and Colin Mccabe, eds. Empire and Film. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Griffiths, Andrew. The New Journalism, the New Imperialism and the Fiction of Empire, 1870–1900. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Haggerty, Sheryllynne, Anthony Webster and Nicholas White, eds. The Empire in One City?: Liverpool’s Inconvenient Imperial Past. Manchester: MUP, 2008.

Harper, Marjory. Emigration from Scotland between the Wars: Opportunity or Exile? Manchester: MUP, 1998.

Hichberger, J. W. M. The Military in British Art: Images of the Army 1815–1914. Manchester: MUP, 1998.

Jeffery, Roger, ed. India in Edinburgh: 1750s to the Present. London: Social Science Press, 2019.

Kaul, Chandrika, ed. Media and the British Empire. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Kaul, Chandrika. Communications, Media and the Imperial Experience: Britain and India in the Twentieth Century. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Kuitenbrouwer, Vincent. ‘“The Brightness You Bring into Our Otherwise Very Dull Existence”: Responses to Dutch Global Radio Broadcasts from the British Empire in the 1920s and 1930s’. The MacKenzie Moment and Imperial History: Essays in Honour of John M. MacKenzie. Ed. Stephanie Barzcewski and Martin Farr. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. 383–408.

Lewis, Joanna. The Death of David Livingstone and the Myth of Victorian Imperialism. Cambridge: CUP, 2018.

Longair, Sarah, and John McAleer, eds. Curating Empire: Museums and the British Imperial Experience. Manchester: MUP, 2012.

MacKenzie, John. Propaganda and Empire: The Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880–1960. Manchester: MUP, 1984.

MacKenzie, John. ‘David Livingstone: The Construction of the Myth’. Ed. Graham Walker and Tom Gallagher. Sermons and Battle Hymns. Edinburgh: EUP, 1990. 24–42.

MacKenzie, John. ‘Glasgow: Imperial City’. Imperial Cities: Landscape, Display and Identity. Ed. Felix Driver and David Gilbert. Manchester: MUP, 1999. 215–37.

MacKenzie, John with Nigel Dalziel. The Scots in South Africa: Ethnicity, Gender and Race, 1772–1914. Manchester: MUP, 2007.

MacKenzie, John. Museums and Empire: Natural Histories, Human Cultures and Colonial Identities. Manchester: MUP, 2009.

MacKenzie, John. ‘Orientalism in Arts and Crafts Revisited, the Modern and the Anti-Modern: The Lessons from the Orient’. Orientalism Revisited. Ed. Ian NETTON. Abingdon: Routledge 2013. 117–27.

MacKenzie, John. ‘Exhibiting Empire at the Delhi Durbar of 1911’. Exhibiting the Empire. Ed. John Mcaleer and John Mackenzie. Manchester: MUP, 2015. 194–219.

MacKenzie, John. The British Empire Through Buildings. Manchester: MUP, 2020.

McAleer, John. Representing Africa: Landscape, Exploration and Empire in Southern Africa, 1780–1870. Manchester: MUP, 2010.

McAleer, John and John Mackenzie, eds. Exhibiting the Empire. Manchester: MUP, 2015.

Meghani, Kajal. Splendours of the Subcontinent: A Prince’s Tour of India, 18756. London: Royal Collection Trust, 2017.

Porter, Andrew. Religion versus Empire? Manchester: MUP, 2004.

Porter, Bernard. Critics of Empire: British Radical Attitudes to Colonialism in Africa 1895–1914. London: Macmillan, 1968.

Porter, Bernard. The Absent-Minded Imperialists: What the British Really Thought about Empire. Oxford: OUP, 2004.

Potter, Simon, ed. Newspapers and Empire in Ireland and Britain, Reporting the British Empire, c. 1857–1921. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2004.

Potter, Simon. Broadcasting and Empire: The BBC and the British World, 1922–1970. Oxford: OUP, 2012.

Qureshi, Sadiah. Peoples on Parade: Exhibitions, Empire and Anthropology in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2011.

Ramamurthy, Anandi. Imperial Persuaders: Images of Africa and Asia in British Advertising. Manchester: MUP, 2003.

Reed, Charles. Royal Tourists, Colonial Subjects and the Making of a British World, 1860–1911. Manchester: MUP, 2016.

Sèbe, Berny. Heroic Imperialists in Africa: The Promotion of British and French Colonial Heroes, 1870-1939. Manchester: MUP, 2013.

Thorne, Susan. Congregational Missions and the Making of an ‘Imperial Culture’ in England in the Nineteenth Century. Stanford: SUP, 1999.

Tomlinson, Tom. Dundee and the Empire: ‘Juteopolis’ 1850–1939. Edinburgh: EUP, 2014.

Wilson, Kathleen. The Sense of the People: Politics, Culture and Imperialism in England, 1715–1785. Cambridge: CUP, 1994.

Wilson, Kathleen. The Island Race: Englishness, Empire and Gender in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Wilson, Kathleen, ed. A New Imperial History: Culture, Identity and Modernity in Britain and the Empire, 1660-1840. Cambridge: CUP, 2004.

Top of page


Electronic reference

John M. MacKenzie, Cultures of Display: The Mirror of ImperialismCahiers victoriens et édouardiens [Online], 93 Printemps | 2021, Online since 01 June 2021, connection on 23 September 2021. URL:; DOI:

Top of page

About the author

John M. MacKenzie

John M. MacKenzie pioneered the study of the cultural aspects of imperialism in his Propaganda and Empire (1984) and the edited Imperialism and Popular Culture (1986) and Popular Imperialism and the Military (1992). He extended such studies into heroic myths, exhibitions, museum displays, migration, architecture and the field of comparative studies across Europe (European Empires and the People, 2011). He founded and edited the ‘Studies in Imperialism’ series from Manchester University Press between 1984 and 2012, writing over 100 introductions to the books in the series. He helped to pioneer environmental history through his book The Empire of Nature, the edited Imperialism and the Natural World, and his editorship of the journal Environment and History. He also became interested in the relationship between the ‘four nations’ (England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales) of the United Kingdom and empire and published particularly on the Scots. He has edited major works of reference and has been an adviser to several exhibitions in London galleries and museums. His book The British Empire Through Buildings was published in 2020 and his Cultural History of the British Empire is currently in the press. He recently ceased to be Editor-in-Chief of the journal Britain and the World.
John M. MacKenzie est à l’origine de l’étude des aspects culturels de l’impérialisme avec son livre Propaganda and Empire (1984) ainsi que Imperialism and Popular Culture (1986) et Popular Imperialism and the Military (1992) qu’il a édités. Il a ensuite porté son attention sur les mythes impériaux et l’héroïsme, les expositions, les musées, la migration, l’architecture ainsi que le champ des études comparatistes en Europe (European Empires and the People, 2011). Il a fondé la collection ‘Studies in Imperialism’ et en a édité les ouvrages de 1984 à 2012, aux presses universitaires de Manchester, écrivant une centaine d’introductions aux livres de la collection. Il a contribué à lancer l’histoire environnementale à travers son livre The Empire of Nature, la direction de l’ouvrage Imperialism and the Natural World, et la direction de la revue scientifique Environment and History. Il s’est aussi beaucoup intéressé aux relations entre les « quatre nations » (l’Angleterre, l’Irlande, l’Écosse et le Pays de Galles) du Royaume-Unis et l’empire et a publié en particulier sur les Écossais. Il a édité de nombreux travaux qui sont devenus des références et a joué le rôle de conseiller pour de nombreuses expositions dans des galeries ou des musées londoniens. Son ouvrage The British Empire Through Buildings a été publié en 2020 et son livre intitulé Cultural History of the British Empire est sous presse. Il a récemment passé la main comme rédacteur en chef de la revue Britain and the World.

Top of page


Licence Creative Commons
Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Top of page
  • Logo Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée
  • Logo ERIH +
  • DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search