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  • Collecting Colonialism: Material Culture and Colonial Change
  • Gerald Sullivan
Collecting Colonialism: Material Culture and Colonial Change. By Chris Gosden and Chantal Knowles. Oxford and New York: Berg, 2001.

Gosden and Knowles draw our attention to the renewed interest in things, meaning physical objects, embedded in various social circumstances and changing hands as part of social processes which generate shifting sets of human relationships. The result is a set of very interesting vignettes that the authors clearly consider unified. I found this book disjointed and, in the end, conceptually muddled. Their general approach, however, has much to recommend it.

The ostensible focus is on four museum collections that are supposed to provide windows onto a changing colonial culture. The collectors were all scholars who gathered together ranges of indigenously produced objects from the Arawe region on the south coast of New Britain during the colonial period; this tight regional focus gives the idea of collections as windows some unity. Three of the scholars (A. B. Lewis, Felix Speiser and Beatrice Blackwood) were connected with leading museums (Chicago’s Field Museum, Basel’s Museum für Völkerkunde and Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum respectively) in differing ways. Gosden and Knowles have had access not only to their collections but also to their associated notes. The fourth scholar, John Alexander Todd, was affiliated with the University of Sydney’s anthropology department during the era of A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and Sir Raymond Firth. Todd’s “notes, diaries and most of his photographs are lost” (129), hence the authors have little they can say. While the other three traveled more broadly through colonial New Guinea, Todd undertook extended fieldwork among the Arawe. Lewis was the only one of these four to collect during the German period (Gosden and Knowles promise another volume on German collectors working prior to the first War). The others all visited between the Wars while the region was a British possession administered by Australia. This variety promises breadth, but it also means that this book concerns only portions of Lewis, Speiser, and Blackwood’s projects.

Gosden and Knowles’s discussion of the collectors and their collections occupies the center of the book. It consists of five chapters: one on the various sorts of objects defined generally in accordance with the collectors rather than the producers and one on each of the four scholars. It is framed by two chapters at the beginning and two more (one very short) at the end in which the authors discuss colonialism more broadly. The authors do not connect their own findings to other work on the broader scientific and cultural projects of museums, botanical gardens or ethnographic expeditions (even the Torres Straight Expedition); rather, they take up the more parochial or local interests of aggrandizement. The so-called “salvage paradigm” gets mentioned only three times, always in passing, and without any obvious connection to the motives of the four collectors or their sponsoring institutions. This paradigm merits more systematic attention, especially in light of the irony, referred to in passing, that salvage leads to expanding production (186).

The authors prefer analyses like that of Immanuel Wallerstein, with its well known emphasis upon interactions between a core and its peripheries joined in a world system, which undertake “detailed, local understandings of colonial times and places” (xix) such as those offered by Nicholas Thomas. They do not really explain why; given the strict regional focus applied to the collections, this preference sits oddly. One of the latter chapters, concerning New Guinea’s thirty-five thousand or so years of human occupation (the authors call this a longue durée (197ff)), would have provided an excellent introductory frame for a discussion of nineteenth and twentieth century colonial cultures as an important and consequential, but also epiphenomenal, in the development of a world system. Frederick Cooper and Ann Stoler’s notion of cultural tension could, perhaps, have been adapted to the authors’ purposes, more effectively joining their preference for the grand system to their self-defined regional focus.

The authors hope to advance what should have been a profitable vision of colonial culture as involving both colonizers and colonized as agents pursuing their various purposes...

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