The spectre of empire in the British art museum

Thomas, Sarah (2013) The spectre of empire in the British art museum. Museum History Journal, 6(1), pp. 105-121. ISSN (print) 1936-9816


This paper examines the virtual invisibility of colonial art in British art museums today, despite a wealth of recent scholarship calling for 'empire' to be understood as central to British art history. While history museums tend to take a broadly inclusive view of the subject, fine art institutions such as Tate continue to define British art in its narrowest geographic sense, despite Britain ruling over what at its peak was the world's largest global empire. The art of colonial Britain is more likely to be seen in such institutions as the National Maritime Museum, where the grand oils of such artists as John Webber and William Hodges sit comfortably within a narrative about British exploration and Empire. The exhibitions and collection displays at Tate, on the other hand, operate in effect as gate-keepers of an established British art historical canon, despite the institution's acquisitions policy which promises to 'frame and address changing historical narratives'. Why do colonial subjects continue to remain of minimal interest to British curators and directors today, despite a wealth of vigorous postcolonial scholarship over the last decade arguing for empire to be understood as being central to British art?

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