Alison Bennett

Collecting in East Africa: from the end of exploration to colonisation and settlement

Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council

Collecting of material culture in colonial East Africa from 1880-1940 using archival material acquired by the British Museum.

Start Date: September 2014
End Date: September 2017
Theme: Objects, meanings and knowledge, Ocean trade and connections
Research discipline: Anthropology, Fine and decorative arts
Locations: Africa, UK
Staff member: Sarah Longair
Department: Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas
University and department: Department of History, University College London
University supervisor: Margot Finn

Are there still unasked questions relating to colonial rule in this period?

Yes. Many individuals have been studied through their diplomatic papers but the art or ethnographical pieces they collected may provide different perspectives on their experiences.

How is an object-based approach to colonialism useful?

It provides an alternative way of understanding contact between different cultures and people. The context of acquisition/ trade, display in different settings, and life trajectories help us understand networks, power relations, and ideas of value and worth.

Colonial rule has been seen as gendered and class based. Is this reflected through individuals’ collections?

I hope to build an answer to this in my future research. By studying male and female collectors, this may reveal a reinforcement of acceptable gendered images or possibly the opportunity for freedom from these constraints.

About my research

I am studying collections in the British Museum and other repositories which were acquired between 1880 and 1940 as the key primary sources for analysing shifting patterns of engagement with East African culture over a period of radical political and administrative change.

This period follows the ‘Scramble for Africa’ by European colonial powers, and precedes decolonisation. The project sits at the intersection of imperial history, the history of collecting and material culture and African studies, and I hope that it will shed new light on colonialism during this time.

Aims of my research

By using a material culture approach- combining close examination of the objects and archival material with research into individual collectors and the wider historical context- I hope to present new perspectives on this period in British history, and on colonial culture in East Africa.


Connections between Indian culture and the British household/ domestic setting through an East India Company at Home case study: Quex Park, Kent.

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