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

Objects, images, the senses, and their capacity to resist curatorial intent

Such a range of experience in what may seem to have been a fairly clear-cut propagandistic display of the ‘achievements’ of colonial development was possible because the textual and sensorial material offered varying, often incoherent, and fragmented sources of information. Exhibitions were not necessarily appreciated as unified wholes, but were often consumed by visitors as a pastiche  of information. Captions, catalogues and careful official contextualisation were suggesting that West Africa was becoming a place of peace and prosperity for British people. Meanwhile, its arresting features: the architecture, morbid curiosities, displayed weapons, peoples and animals, when considered within contemporary European fantasies and fears of ‘Darkest Africa’ told a story of romance, danger, decay and disease. Curators had anticipated visitors arriving ready to absorb knowledge, rather than immersed in pre-existing social and cultural beliefs and ready to embark on an immersive, voyeuristic adventure into otherness. Thus, the curatorial paradox could not be managed, and the agency of the objects and images escaped the curators’ bonds, taking on a life of their own.

Indeed, when taken out of curatorial context, and considered within prevailing stereotypes of ‘the White Man’s Grave’, photographs and models of disfiguring tropical diseases and their villainous vectors – mosquitos, worms and flies – did not suggest health and vitality. These had the potential to produce quite the opposite effect, as the following series of striking and sinister photographs of the displays suggest:

Figure 10

Composition of various objects featured in a Wellcome exhibition on Malaria

(Top left): a plaster cast of a nodular leprosy sufferer
(Top right): preserved brain from a 'fatal case of malaria'
(Bottom left): models of the life cycle of the anopheles mosquito
(Bottom right): ‘Leper hand’
Wellcome Library, London, WA/MMS/PH/Ext/5:O/S 2: ‘British Empire Exhibition, Wembley – Health Section Displays’

In the case of the Walled-City, the displays of industry, vitality and abundance were intermingled with those that evoked darker British perceptions of West Africa – wild animals, weapons and warfare. These had been included to demonstrate the ‘achievements’ of the ‘civilising mission’: curators sought to suggest that Africans had abandoned conflict, were cooperating with paternalism, and conforming to British ideals of African development. As Hugh Clifford (Governor of Nigeria) put it, they had ‘turned their spears into implements of agriculture’ (Clifford, 1924, p 13). 

Figure 11

Museum exhibition and displays that attempt to reproduce and African walled city

(Top): a well-armed figure on horseback greets the visitor to the Nigerian building (Clifford, 1924, p 12)
(Bottom): the walls of the Walled-City are adorned with weapons (Clifford, 1924, p 12)

However, many visitors did not interpret these as images of African ‘progress’. Instead, curatorial visions of the past were taken to be visions of the present. Images of disease and danger latched onto and reinforced pre-existing prejudices, in many cases offering yet another window onto ‘Darkest Africa’.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/191101/006