Beyond the Horizon: three study cases regarding East Asian material culture exhibited in the Nottingham Castle Museum, the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and the British Museum
UNIVERSITY OF NOTTINGHAM
During the 19th Century, Europe witnessed the rise of one of the major cultural institutions the world has seen: the modern museum. Under the supervision of Enlightenment, the public museum appeared as an act of consolidation of the natural sciences, breaking free from myth and speculation by choosing certain pieces of material culture as worthy of being collected and preserved. Whether it was an art, natural history, anthropology or history museum, they all complied with the “metanarrative of evolutionary progress”: galleries embodied a trajectory from simple to complex, which meant shifting from savagery to civilization, or driving from the very ancient to the very modern. For further engagement with this purpose, collection were formed as signs of identity, part of a collective memory that was meaningful to the public. Thanks to the power of the newly- established nation states, material culture was collected for the development of a specifically museological way to depict the world. Indeed, those artefacts were given the status of a total representation of human existence and history, which in turn relied on the activity of considering the part as a synonym of the whole, whether this would be taking a label as representative of an object, or an object as representative of a series. However, during the second half of the 20th century, the political, cultural and social implications of this started to be systematically questioned. The identity of the objects and collections were no longer something “natural,” with no apparent political narrative behind it. Such a reconsideration of can be best described as the “Postcolonial Shift” and in this dissertation I will argue that such a perspective has been adopted in the context of three English public museums, namely the Nottingham Castle Museum, the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and the British Museums when they are assessed with exhibiting East Asian material culture, however nuanced and sometimes contradictory this task may be.