Go back to article: From the White Man’s Grave to the White Man’s Home? Experiencing ‘Tropical Africa’ at the 1924–25 British Empire Exhibition


In this study, I have argued a need to bring official curatorial intentions into conversation with fragments of sensorial experience which survive in print media, literature, film and photography. Through comparing these different kinds of sources, I have uncovered a multiplicity of potential experiences within the BEE. The interpretation of images, artefacts and peoples often escaped curatorial intent. Visions of a new ‘white man’s home’, could be challenged and discussed, and even be read as reiterations of the familiar image of the White Man’s Grave. One reason for this was contemporary context: a prevailing history of ideas, images and sensations related to Africa had been disseminated in earlier exhibitions and other media, and a plurality of pre-existing discourses surrounded the objects on display. Another reason was the capacity for visitors to treat the experience as an adventure into otherness, rather than one of careful study and close reading. A third hinged on a curatorial paradox – curators sought to manipulate the very images that had defined the 'White Man’s Grave' to challenge it. These findings have several implications for the historiography of exhibitions, popular science and imperial culture.

Here, I have shown that there is a great capacity for the sublime, immersive and sensational experience of an exhibition to overwhelm its intellectual messages. Imperial culture and popular science need to be understood as more than just a negotiation of intellectual ideas and mentalities. We also need to consider the sensual, somatic, material and affective dimensions of these mentalities. The visceral horrors of disease, fed by popular science, literature, film and visual culture often defy any rational attempt to contextualise risk. Drawing attention to the sensorial aspects of the cultural history of medicine also allows us to reflect on the legacy of prejudice about African peoples and environments which persists to this day.

Secondly, this suggests that we need to continue to rethink and challenge the relationship between international expositions, national identities and twentieth-century concepts of modernity. The British Empire Exhibition was not only a place of ‘pilgrimage to the commodity fetish’, as Benjamin so eloquently described the archetypical international exposition (2002, p 7). Nor was it always a site at which unified national identities were formed. Instead, it exposed the tears and frays within the tapestry of the British Empire, at a period in which its weave was rapidly unravelling.

Finally, I have demonstrated the limits of using the archive of the fair to unearth European perceptions of other cultures. Curatorial intentions are often highly politicised and are not always representative of visitors’ opinions. Visitors experiences survive only in fragments, and cannot be homogenised as singular. Different degrees of expertise, personal experience and expectations resulted in varying interpretations of the exhibits, rather than a singular narrative being read. There are limits to curatorial power, and in this case, a lineage of racist ideas could not be challenged by the very same sensory tropes which created them in the first place. Believing was seeing, and many of those exploring the Walled-City and the Tropical Health exhibit saw only what they already believed the reality of Africa to be. Curatorial visions of productivity were often perceived by visitors as primitivity. Those who had lived in West Africa were often unconvinced that the Walled-City resembled contemporary African life. In either case, the fantasy that curators had put on display did not always correspond with the imagined reality on the ground. Many visitors’ eyes were accustomed to the stereotype of the dim, gloomy jungles of ‘Darkest Africa’, and curatorial glimpses of light failed to penetrate its dark canopy.


This article was derived from my MSc thesis, produced at the University of Oxford in 2016–17 and funded by the Standard Bank Derek Cooper Africa Scholarship. My sincerest thanks to my supervisor, Sloan Mahone and the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine for providing a stimulating and encouraging research environment. My thanks also to Pippa Skotnes and Alex Grieve for reading drafts of this paper and for their encouragement and critical feedback. Finally, I am tremendously grateful for the support provided by the Science Museum Group, particularly Kate Steiner, Richard Nicholls, the editorial board and judging panel, as well as three anonymous reviewers, whose feedback significantly improved this paper. 

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/191101/007