Decolonising the Museum: The Case of the Imperial and Commonwealth Institutes

Claire Wintle


This article investigates the relationship between museums and decolonisation in the under-examined middle years of the twentieth century (c. 1945-1970). Focusing on London’s Imperial Institute and its successor, the Commonwealth Institute, it argues that material culture and museums not only reflected wider political change, but exercised agency on processes of decolonisation. Museums helped multiple stakeholders in both metropole and (ex)colony to trial and enact forms of decolonisation, neo-colonialism, independence and anti-colonial resistance and acted as microcosms of wider political encounters: the practices of display and acquisition allowed the subjects of a crumbling empire to retain a sense of control over the process of decolonisation, but importantly they also provided an arena for emerging powers from the former colonies to assert their own agendas and forced staff at such institutions to take this influence seriously. Drawing on extensive archival material representing the perspectives of the Institutes’ staff and their contacts in decolonising countries across the Commonwealth, the tensions, collaborations and ambivalence inherent in the relationship between museums and the high politics of decolonisation are explored.

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Copyright (c) 2015 Claire Wintle

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Museum and Society

ISSN 1479-8360