Exhibitions, Empires, and Nations: Defining Ideal Citizens

Photo by Rob Bye on Unsplash

In the last twenty-five years or so, museums and exhibitions have been increasingly recognised as ideologically loaded frameworks. Previously understood as sites for the objective display of knowledge, museums and cultural institutions more broadly have been reframed in Carol Duncan’s words as “powerful identity defining machines”, and sites for the ‘ritualisation of citizenship’ . This article will briefly outline some of the ways in which exhibitions emerged in Europe as important sites for consolidating idealised national communities defined against a backdrop of empire in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Exhibitions had been used as vehicles for entertainment and education long before the 19th century the form of private displays for elites, and popular travelling shows for the masses. Nonetheless, drawing on Richard Altick, Tony Bennett highlights that in Britain the 19th century was “was quite unprecedented in the social effort it devoted to the organisation of spectacles arranged for increasingly large and undifferentiated publics”. Inverting Foucault’s work on prisons, Bennett calls this The Exhibitionary Complex - the use of spectacle, alongside discipline, in the construction of an idealised citizenry. Therefore, he argues, exhibitions are one of many cultural spaces — including museums, arcades, department stores, theatres and zoos — that transformed in the emergence of the nation state.

While there’s only space to briefly sketch his arguments here, Bennett contends three developments were central to building Gramsci’s “ethical and educative” civil society, allowing audiences:

To know and thence to regulate themselves; to become, in seeing themselves from the side of power, both the subjects and the objects of knowledge, knowing power and what power knows, and knowing themselves as (ideally) known by power (Bennett, 76).

First, the influence of enlightenment thought, as spectacle was increasingly divided into “new disciplines…history, anthropology, biology, art”, presented along new “discursive forms…past, man, evolution, aesthetics”, and in turn projected new identities and hierarchies onto their audiences — implicitly, ideas of progress, race, science and culture. Second, Bennett notes developing state interest and investment in ‘culture’, whether directly through patronage or indirectly through trusteeship and industry networks, during this time. Third, the 19th century was transformative in establishing “permanent institutions” and sites for displays of power and knowledge.

Therefore, Bennett argues, it’s not a coincidence that in Britain, the Great Exhibition of 1851 at Hyde Park demonstrated the power of British Industry over six million visitors within a decade of the opening of Pentonville Prison- both were “articulated developments” of modern “social technologies” intended to define and regulate an emerging national community.

Bennett also notes that the ambiguous relationship between fairs and official exhibition spaces in Britain reveals both the limits and successes of attempts to construct a unified national culture from above. In the mid to late 19th century, popular fairs and sideshows associated with them were increasingly legislated against and constructed as a cause of “grievous immorality” in opposition to more ‘refined’, upper-class forms of entertainment Fairs Act, 1871. Theres a really interesting blog by Richard Barnett where you can read more about fairs in London.

Bennett highlights that from the 1870’s official exhibitions began to incorporate and transform elements from popular fairs in a successful bid to attract larger working class audiences. Importantly, the appearance of these popular zones at official exhibitions reveals that while attempts to cultivate an idealised society were rooted in existing popular forms, the ideologies of order and progress being promoted onto them, constructing and communicating to a broader national community.

Annie E. Coombes also highlights the importance of spectacle in Britain during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, although she focuses more on the role museums and exhibitions played in fostering a national identity through a sense of pride in empire. While Coombes notes that museums increasingly sought to define themselves against exhibitions as the sites of “authentic and academic” knowledge production, she shows both were deeply influenced by a “heady rhetoric of education and national coherence”. Like Bennett, Coombes highlights that an emphasis on broadcasting to a unified national audience was important to the opening of the Great Exhibition, the South Kensington Museum and the National Gallery in the 1850s.

However, Coombes argues that by the 1880’s the expansion of empire and the organisation of the working classes led to a heightened political effort to establish a national identity through policies of “social imperialism”. Drawing on documents from the Museums Association, she notes that from the late 19th century and exhibitions were increasingly competing for funding and audiences. As part of this process, both institutions positioned themselves as useful tools for the to state educate a national community their visitors through entertainment and spectacle about their position in the British Empire.

Similarly, Timothy Mitchell has argued that the growth of exhibitions as a form of entertainment and education must not be separated from wider European ontologies that legitimised colonialism in the first place. Using travel writing about Europe published in Cairo at the turn of the 20th century, Mitchell contends that recurring mentions of exhibitions — illustratively defined by one author as “intizam al-manzar”, or “the organisation of the view”– are reflective of modern European beliefs in a “method of order and truth” through which the world could be entirely and coherently rendered for presentation, inspection and understanding.

He argues that the production of “the world as exhibition” rested on the existence of an “external reality” — a belief in inherent hierarchies of ordering and difference, and a separation between the representation and what was being represented. As Mitchell contends, this imagined hierarchy that was central to exhibitions was also a driving factor of the European colonial enterprise; both were driven by a belief in the ability rationalise the world according to a single historic trajectory based on Eurocentric norms.


Bennett, Tony. The Exhibitionary Complex. new formations. 4 (1) (1988): 73–102.

Coombes, Annie E. Museums and the Formation of National and Cultural Identities. Oxford Art Journal. 11.2 (1988): 57–68.

Mitchell, Timothy. The World as Exhibition. Comparative Studies in Society and History. 31 (2) (1989): 217–236.