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

Reading visitors’ experiences: negotiating curatorial intention and sensorial information

Histories of World’s Fairs have primarily been written from a top-down curatorial perspective, which describes and unpacks the ideological function of the displays from the perspective of organisers (Munro, 2010, pp 84, 89–90; Rydell, 2006, pp 145–6). They have served as evidence for the European gaze, racial theory, the construction of national identities, imperial culture, and Foucauldian disciplinary society. As early as the 1930s, Benjamin (2002, pp 7–8) considered them to be shining examples of the cultural logic of the twentieth-century, which shaped public understandings of the world itself, and commodity fetishism. They were also foundational to both metropolitan and colonial national identities (MacKenzie, 1984, pp 2, 10, 97–9).[6] Critical to the construction of such identities was the representation of the colonised – often in anthropological ‘native villages’. These ‘villages’, which put groups of living peoples on display, sought to offer a slice of ‘native life’, giving Western publics a voyeuristic glimpse into exotic cultures, without needing to risk the putative horrors of encountering them in situ (Corbey, 1993, pp 338–345). A plethora of historians have argued that such displays played a role in the development of racial theories, and justified colonial expansion by depicting so-called natives as barbaric.[7]

Figure 1

Illustration of a Victorian audience viewing the Savage South Africa Native Village at the 1899 Greater Britain Exhibition

An artist’s impression of the ‘Savage South Africa Native Village’ at the 1899 Greater Britain Exhibition. William T Maud, A Peak at the Natives, 1899, pen and washes, 350 x 267 mm

Exhibitions, the argument goes, did not only order and discipline the ‘other’, but were also technologies of Foucauldian state power, which produced audiences with docile bodies and ‘improved’ the taste and aspirations of the European and North American working classes. Through hierarchical displays of culture, rules prohibiting the touching of artefacts, architectural designs encouraging an orderly crowd, and the presence of police in the form of security guards, exhibitions helped produce a disciplined working class. Likewise, the spectacle of the fair encouraged self-surveillance – the crowd was a fundamental part of the experience. Everyone was on display to everyone else. Such ‘docile bodies’ were susceptible to the ideological content on display, and thus the working class learned to relate to the world in terms of the bourgeois European gaze (Bennett, 1995, pp 55–88).

By-and-large, these studies of World’s Fairs are informed by an assumption that fairs were significant cultural events, containing ideologically influential content. Such arguments presuppose a marriage of curatorial intent and visitor reception because they focus primarily on official sources (written documents, catalogues, reports) at the expense of alternative visitors’ narratives. Official materials are saturated in institutional propaganda, usually declare exhibits successful, and reduce the visitors’ experience to attendance figures. Yet, exhibitions are not necessarily metonyms of the state (Longair, 2012, p 5), and the intentions of curators do not always translate into practice (MacKenzie, 2010, pp 276–7). Even the process of curating a single exhibition is the result of multiple perspectives, rather than the unified state hegemony presented by the catalogue.

Recent work in the history of expositions and museums has started to move away from this bias towards curatorial intentions, and has begun to expand our understanding of the archive of the fair. Scholars have examined the experiences of visitors and performers (Niquette and Buxton, 1997; Marthur, 2000; Parezo and Fowler, 2007; Qureshi, 2011), debates and counterpropaganda movements stimulated by expositions (Hughes, 2006; Geppert, 2010; Britton, 2010; Stephen, 2013), tried to recreate the ‘layout of the fair’ and its pavilions in book form (Hollengreen, et al, 2014, p 6), and viewed fairs as miniature cities with real urban problems (Brown, 2009). This essay adds to such literature by proposing three interventions.

Firstly, I assert the necessity of critical analysis of the official archive of the fair (planning documents, guidebooks, catalogues, promotional materials) by exposing its internal contradictions and its limits as a source of information. I show here how visitors cannot be treated as blank slates, as they arrive armed with prior knowledge and expectations, which comes into negotiation with the displayed material.

Secondly, I argue the necessity of exploring a variety of potential visitors’ experiences within a single fair. I demonstrate how different kinds of visitors, participants and organisers engaged somatically, intellectually and sensorially with displayed material, and how this shaped their interpretations thereof. Here, I have departed from treating fairs as if they were merely books – repositories of textual and discursive information – and sought evidence of the immersive, spatial and somatic experience of navigating the fairgrounds. The history of the senses can provide pointers here. Examining textual, material and visual traces of the senses, and how these were experienced in different historical contexts, is critical in understanding how perceptions of societies were formulated.[8] Such evidence is important in the case of historical exhibitions, as sensory material is not necessarily aligned with exhibition texts, and can often produce contrary or other understandings. As Classen and Howes argue, ‘artefacts body forth  specific “ways of sensing” and they must be approached through the senses, rather than as “texts” to be read or mere visual “signs” to be decoded’ (2006, p 200). Analyses of the senses are also vital in understanding how colonial and indigenous categories are constructed in the first place (Edwards, et al, 2006, p 3). These, as Stoler argues were commonly ‘generated viscerally, out of responses of desire or disgust that could mutate in different kinds of social relations’ (Stoler, 1995, paraphrased in Edwards, et al, 2006, p 3).

Evidence of the sensorial can be difficult to find, as it is almost never explicitly recorded. Yet this information does survive in fragments across print media, ephemera, photography, rare personal accounts and film. In these media, compliments, comments, critiques and anecdotes about the experience of visiting the fair allow historians to reconstruct how various visitors responded to the displayed material. This enables a reading of the visual archive of the fair outside of the intentions of its curators.

Thirdly, I do not treat each exhibit within each pavilion as a distinct and contained curatorial experience. Instead, I show how visitors formed their own narratives of the fair as they wandered between sometimes conflicted different curatorial zones. Such accounts often explicitly contradicted and undermined curatorial intentions.

Ultimately, I assert that we need to recognise that fairs were spectacular experiences in which the sensorial could escape, contradict and sometimes challenge the expression of national identities, disciplinary society and commodity fetishism. Visitors did not always perceive a picture of a carefully curated world, but often a collage of various sights, smells and sensations. As many scholars have argued, objects and images on display are not automatically tied to curatorial intentions, but seem to return our gaze – they have agency to acquire alternative meanings within their historical or cultural contexts (Elkins, 1997, pp 72–3, 86–89; Sontag, 2003, pp 9, 35). Perceptions of objects, images and peoples need to be seen as products of an ‘education of the senses within a particular sensory milieu’ (Edwards, et al, 2006, p 21). Medical photographs in contemporary museums, for example, often resist exhibition narratives because of their intimate and private social connotations, as well as their shock-value. Tying such photographs to a controlled reading can thus be difficult (te Hennepe, 2016, online). Histories of World’s Fairs need to be sensitive to the range of discourses surrounding displayed objects that can exist outside the confines of curatorial intent.

To pose these arguments, I examine representations of tropical Africa and how visitors engaged with these at the BEE by focusing on two separate exhibits: the West African Walled City, and Tropical Health: the campaign against tropical disease in both human and plant life.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/191101/003