The settler colony in the ‘public sphere’ (II): Rosemary Gall Spooner, Close encounters: international exhibitions and the material culture of the British Empire, c.1880-1940, PhD thesis, University of Glasgow, 2016


Abstract: Apparitions of empire and imperial ideologies were deeply embedded in the International Exhibition, a distinct exhibitionary paradigm that came to prominence in the mid-nineteenth century. Exhibitions were platforms for the display of objects, the movement of people, and the dissemination of ideas across and between regions of the British Empire, thereby facilitating contact between its different cultures and societies. This thesis aims to disrupt a dominant understanding of International Exhibitions, which forwards the notion that all exhibitions, irrespective of when or where they were staged, upheld a singular imperial discourse (i.e. Greenhalgh 1988, Rydell 1984). Rather, this thesis suggests International Exhibitions responded to and reflected the unique social, political and economic circumstances in which they took place, functioning as cultural environments in which pressing concerns of the day were worked through. Understood thus, the International Exhibition becomes a space for self-presentation, serving as a stage from which a multitude of interests and identities were constructed, performed and projected. This thesis looks to the visual and material culture of the International Exhibition in order to uncover this more nuanced history, and foregrounds an analysis of the intersections between practices of exhibition-making and identity-making. The primary focus is a set of exhibitions held in Glasgow in the late-1880s and early-1900s, which extends the geographic and temporal boundaries of the existing scholarship. What is more, it looks at representations of Canada at these events, another party whose involvement in the International Exhibition tradition has gone largely unnoticed. Consequently, this thesis is a thematic investigation of the links between a municipality routinely deemed the ‘Second City of the Empire’ and a Dominion settler colony, two types of geographic setting rarely brought into dialogue. It analyses three key elements of the exhibition-making process, exploring how iconographies of ‘quasi-nationhood’ were expressed through an exhibition’s planning and negotiation, its architecture and its displays. This original research framework deliberately cuts across strata that continue to define conceptions of the British Empire, and pushes beyond a conceptual model defined by metropole and colony. Through examining International Exhibitions held in Glasgow in the late-Victorian and Edwardian periods, and visions of Canada in evidence at these events, the goal is to offer a novel intervention into the existing literature concerning the cultural history of empire, one that emphasises fluidity rather than fixity and which muddles the boundaries between centre and periphery.

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