Chapter 3 - Imperial Show and Tell

S Sareh Public Seen by 132

This summary is by Hannah Ishmael, who will be leading the discussion on this chapter today.
This chapter continues the work of the previous chapters in situating the way education and knowledge divides the world, namely between us the West, and them, the rest. This division occurs in the way that the Other becomes an object, and not only an object in and of itself but one that is to be studied and becomes the focus of our scientific enquiries and growing understanding of the world.

The pursuit of scientific knowledge and understanding drives the quest to understand and order the world, to continue to push back the veil. It is the right of the West to possess this knowledge, and our duty to ‘give back’ this knowledge to the world. Not only is the Other to be studied and understood in purely scientific ways, the culture of the Other becomes literally an object within our museums, to be displayed and exhibited as a testament and legacy to the process of Empire, Imperialism and ‘civilisation’.

The chapter looks at this concept of showing, described by Willinsky as the process of exhibition both inside and outside of the public institutions springing up across Western Europe particularly during the nineteenth century.

One of the key arguments put forward in this chapter focuses on the power that is at work in the process of exhibiting and how this process creates objects, and forces people or cultural items to become representatives of the whole. The example given by Willinsky is of the life story of Saartjie Baartman, also known as the Hottentot Venus. The treatment of Baartman, Willinksy shows us, literally creates a lasting object out of her supposedly abnormal reproductive organs but also shows how her sexuality becomes the subject of on-going scientific enquiry. Not only does the supposed subversive nature of particularly African female sexuality become normalised through science, Baartman becomes disassociated from her individuality and becomes a pathological representative of all African women. These disassociated objects then become categorised and essentialised. Taking this argument further, Willinsky notes the use of mannequins where objects can literally ‘stand in’ for people, the object and the essentialised person become interchangeable.

I think this also links to an idea emerging in the second chapter, the way that education and science are seen to be ahistorical, as once something is the basis of scientific enquiry it becomes disassociated from the history and individual that created it.

At the heart of this process of showing, through the exhibition is the nature of empiricism and the priority of the senses, particularly seeing. However, the nature of seeing and perception is based on the perception of the West and its creation of the Other. The process of exhibition makes and remakes the world in the eyes of the West however it chooses to display and understand it.

This is shown most clearly in Willinsky’s treatment of the museum. Western knowledge and ‘ways of thinking’, or telling are at the centre of the experience of all those who visit. To continue with some of the themes from the earlier chapters, not only are these objects and artefacts important for their value and the way they are consumed, they are all drawn together and placed at the heart of the Empire. This not only works to highlight the power of the Empire in gathering this material together, but also to transform the meaning and understanding of the objects in terms of their physical and intellectual arrangement within the museum.

This understanding becomes something to aspire to, not only for those who have become objects within the museum, but also for the poor and working class who will ‘benefit’ from this instruction. However, one aspect that is missing from this chapter but which may be picked up in later chapters is a discussion on the nature of the way that the proceeds of Empire were used to create a leisured class who were able to visit and be instructed within the museums, something which could have been further discussed in the section on travel and travel writing as a means of control.

I was also struck by the tension that lies at the heart of the chapter between the creation of the modern versus the idea of the primitive. One of the important divisions is not only us and them, but more importantly how us in the West are the epitome of knowledge and modernity versus the primitive nature of the Other. The museum then becomes the site of this ongoing performance, as throughout the chapter Willinsky points to acts of actual performance by Baartman whilst she was alive, or as on page 61 where in discussion of the International Congress of Orientalists Willinsky says “they are explained and made sensible, like puppets by their learned presenters.”

Within the museum, the culture of the ‘Other’ becomes trapped in this dialogue with modernity as always seeming to represent the primitive, or as Willinsky argues on page 65 “the educational interests of the museum called for boxing and preserving the natives’ lives within a spectacular three dimensional family album that preserved their place in the past.” Whereas the culture of the West is always seen to be moving forward, like the exhibits the culture of the Other is primitive and static.

Taking an argument from Said in his book ‘Orientalism’ and from the work of Garner, this also works to ensure that the Other always represents what White people are not, and the objects in the museum say more about how the West sees itself rather than the culture of the Other.

This point is further made in the discussion on Art and particularly Picasso. Although West African sculpture became the inspiration for his work, the pieces themselves become decontextualized, removed from their time and become the basis for further reinterpretation. However, the important aspect here is that whilst the works of artists such as Picasso become applauded for being the height of the modern and the work of advanced society, the work that inspired him will always remain an artefact, and therefore eternally primitive and backward. It is only if it is labelled ‘art’ that it becomes important or a symbol of advancement and culture.

However, this brings us back to the nature of consumption highlighted in earlier chapters in the book that education and knowledge exists to be consumed, as do art and artefacts and the West has a right to consume it and repurpose it however it wishes.

The final point I would like to make is the way that the various modes of exhibition discussed in the chapter continue to substantiate the important act not only of dividing the world, but also ensuring that those divisions remain. It is through ownership, not only of the objects themselves but also the ownership of the categories in which these objects exist that the power of imperialism is understood.

Each of the methods of exhibition, spectacle, museum, zoological and botanical gardens, encyclopaedia and travel writing all point to the way that things are named and categorised and it is the display and ordering of these categories that give them power. It is the power to define and to promote a way of understanding and seeing that is at the heart of knowledge and understanding. It is the right of the West to order the world and make it intelligible.

So, do we have a right to knowledge? And can knowledge be owned?


Hannah Ishmael Fri 15 May 2015 12:24PM

To follow on from the discussion on the difference between art and artefact, I remembered this exhibition that is currently on at the Barbican (yes, the very same Exhibit B Barbican) on the collection of material by artists. http://www.barbican.org.uk/artgallery/event-detail.asp?ID=17071. It closes at the end of next week, so it might be worth having a look to see how it is handled.


Chikukuango Cuxima-Zwa Fri 15 May 2015 2:27PM

we had another lively and stimulate discussion on John Willinsky’s work, in this case chapter 3, let by Hannah Ishmael. I found pertinent the fact that Saartjie Baartman was used as a representation and exhibition of the exotic black female body, which in this instance her sexuality and buttocks was a subject of appropriation and obsession as an encounter with imperial power. This chapter made clear to me the important of theatre and performance arts as a tool and cultural production in the post-colonial context. Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Pena brilliantly used their bodies as a counter-argument and reverse anthropology in front of an audience in museums and universities setting, challenging/mocking imperial classification and narrative. See the link with more details of the piece “Two Undiscovered Amerindians” (The Couple in the Cage) http://beautifultrouble.org/case/the-couple-in-the-cage/
The video of their performance/exhbition is actually on Vimeo in case you interested: https://vimeo.com/79363320