Absent Histories and Absent Images: Photographs, Museums and the Colonial Past

Elizabeth Edwards, Matt Mead


Based on research in a range of UK museums, this paper explores the visibility and invisibility of the photographic legacy of colonial relations and the representation of the colonial past in museum galleries. It explores the conditions of the ‘invisibility’ and ‘disavowal’ of the colonial past in the historical narrative developed by museums, and the anxieties that cluster around such narratives in a postcolonial and multicultural society. The paper argues that the photographic legacy of the colonial past offers a way into those histories, but it is one that can only be realized through the critical engagement with photographs themselves and the work they might be made to do in museums. As an example, it examines the active and complex role of photographs played in the galleries of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, Bristol. It concludes that the failure of museums to integrate colonial pasts into their narratives has worked against the wider liberal agendas to which museums subscribe, and that photographic invisibility is both a symptom of and metaphor for the ‘invisibility’ of the colonial past.

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Copyright (c) 2015 Elizabeth Edwards, Matt Mead

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Museum and Society

ISSN 1479-8360