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  • Exhibiting the Empire: Cultures of Display and the British Empire eds. by John McAleer and John M. Mackenzie
  • Charles V. Reed
Exhibiting the Empire: Cultures of Display and the British Empire. Edited by John McAleer and John M. Mackenzie (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2015) 291 pp. $110.00 cloth $39.95 paper

Mackenzie is the dean of British imperial history, founding the Manchester Studies in Imperialism in 1984 long before the "imperial turn" in British history. Although Mackenzie's work inclines more toward social history and less toward theory than the New Imperial History that has emerged during the last two decades, the motivating theme of the series—that "imperialism as a cultural phenomenon had as significant an effect on the dominant as on the subordinate societies"—is much at home in the contemporary literature of empire. McAleer brings to the volume considerable expertise about material culture. Together they have compiled an innovative and worthwhile collection that examines "the literal display and exhibition of empire (and the idea of empire) in the imperial metropolis" through the lens of material culture (1–2). The authors come from diverse disciplinary backgrounds—artand arthistory (Douglas Fordham and Eleanor Hughes), ethnomusicology (Nalini Ghuman), history (Stephanie Barczewski and Ashley Jackson), museum studies/public history (Sarah Longair and David Tomkins), and post-colonial/area studies (Berny Sèbe). The representations of empire that they examine are equally diverse (satirical prints, exhibitions, and architecture).

The question of the pervasiveness of the imperial project to the culture, politics, and society of the British metropole is a contentious one in the historiography. At the high point of European imperialism, Joseph Schumpeter in The Sociology of Imperialism (Tübingen, 1919) argued that imperialism was an atavism of a modern and capitalist society, the refuge of an increasingly irrelevant aristocracy. Richard Price's An Imperial War and the British Working Class (New York, 1972) examined the "jingo crowd" and anti-war sentiment during the Second Anglo-Boer War (now more appropriately identified as the South African War), concluding that support for the war and thus the project of empire was found in the middle classes rather than the working classes. Bernard Porter's The Absent-Minded Imperialists: Empire, Society, and Culture in Britain (New York, 2006) revived this more traditional class-based argument, claiming to find few imperial artifacts in British politics, society, and culture. It managed to unite both the more traditional camp of imperial historians led by Mackenzie and a newer breed of New Imperial historians in criticism of his premises and [End Page 498] findings. As Bell has suggested, these debates often talk past one another; historians of a political or social ilk often focus on imperial consciousness, whereas historians of a cultural and more theory-driven persuasion consider the complicated ways in which British society, politics, and culture were forged in a relationship with empire, often unconsciously.1 At the same time, scholars disagree about whether the British historically cared or thought about empire in any sort of lasting or meaningful way.

Exhibiting the Empire brings the Mackenzie camp closer to the cultural history of the New Imperial History. But the careful curation of these artifacts of empire shares more in common with the careful social history of Mackenzie's earlier work, such as Imperialism and Popular Culture (Manchester, 1987), which could easily share shelf space with the current volume. This approach to the history of imperial representations and symbols in Britain is more empirical, seeking pieces of culture on which to shine light. It helps us to understand the diverse ways in which British society represented and imagined empire.

Mackenzie's own chapter (Chapter 8) about the Delhi Durbar of 1911 examines metropolitan press coverage of King George V and Queen Mary's travels to India as the new emperor and empress of India for the Mughal-inspired assemblage. Jeffrey Auerbach's Chapter 5 explores other British fantasies of empire as exhibited at the Crystal Palace in the 1851 Great Exhibition to the 1911 Festival of Empire; for Auerbach, these exhibits reflected the development of an imperial culture in Britain during the nineteenth century, as well as omens of its coming demise. Print culture...


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