The Museum of London 1976-2007: Reimagining Metropolitan Narratives in Postcolonial London

Aylett, Samuel Paul Tobias (2020). The Museum of London 1976-2007: Reimagining Metropolitan Narratives in Postcolonial London. PhD thesis The Open University.



Since the 1990s, cultural historians have developed exciting new scholarship charting shifting representations of empire at museums. Yet city museums feel strangely absent from these conversations, which have principally focused on national and regional museums in Britain, its former colonies and Europe. This thesis responds to this gap in the literature by mapping the shifting representation of empire and colonial histories at the Museum of London between 1976-2007. Opened in 1976 by Queen Elizabeth II, the Museum of London was an amalgamation of the London Museum (1912) and the Guildhall Museum (founded 1826), situated in the heart of the City, at the south-west corner of the Barbican Centre. Given its location, once the heart of the British Empire, the Museum of London provides a unique space to examine the changing place and value of empire in Britain’s foremost metropolitan museum. The thesis begins then by charting the origins of the Museum of London, analysing the place and value of empire within the Museum’s permanent galleries in 1976. It proceeds by untangling the complex relations underlying shifting representations, to explore how and why changes in narrative orientation occurred in 1989 when the Museum started planning a new exhibition, ‘The Peopling of London’, launched in 1993. This marked the Museum’s initial serious engagement with the legacies of British colonialism in relation to its urban constituents. The legacy of this small exhibition led to increased engagement with postcolonial histories, culminating with ‘London, Sugar and Slavery’ in 2007, staged at the Museum of London Docklands to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. The cumulative picture is a complex, sometimes ambiguous, relationship between the Museum and London’s colonial past.

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