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Colonial Knowledges Seminar 6

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Colonial Knowledges Seminar Series: Environment and Logistics in the Creation of Knowledge in British Colonies from 1750 to 1950.

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Colonial Knowledges: Environment and Logistics in the Creation of Knowledge in British Colonies from 1750 to 1950.

The effects of colonial power dynamics on knowledge creation in the long nineteenth century and beyond are well known and have become the foundation of a postcolonial reading of British scholarship in the context of empire. What has been less well examined are the practical effects of the colonial context on knowledge making. This seminar series seeks to explore how logistical and practical factors, such as the physical environment including climate and distance from the metropole, influenced the creation of both scientific and humanistic knowledge in British colonies.

Seminar 6

Matthew Schauer, Oklahoma State University: ‘A Local Museum: Imperial Exchange, Collections, and Knowledge Networks in British Malaya 1883-1940’

The Perak Museum was established in 1883 to preserve and exhibit the ethnology, ecological diversity, and history of northern British Malaya. This small museum exchanged artifacts, publications, and ethnological knowledge with learned societies, libraries, and museums in Singapore, the Netherlands Indies, French Indochina, the United States, England, and the British Empire. The Museum’s exhibits were meant to educate Malays about their own history and culture, and to convey the perceived superiority of Malay culture over other indigenous groups. The Museum’s focus on British imperial conceptions of Malay culture and history also reinforced the traditional power of the British-supported Malay elites in an effort to maintain local political equilibrium.

Although it was in a fairly remote area, Perak Museum’s collecting philosophy, curatorial practices and exhibitions were heavily influenced by global intellectual trends and imperial policies. This paper will examine the Perak Museum’s role within local and global imperial knowledge networks. Through an analysis of the museum’s collections, exhibition records, and publications, this paper will demonstrate how curators attempted to achieve the Museum’s imperial mission while dealing with the practical challenges of a small budget, inhospitable climate, pests, unreliable staff, difficult collecting logistics, and local indigenous resistance.

Erica Mukherjee, NYU Shanghai: ‘The Value of Gleaning: Producing and Publishing Scientific Knowledge in Colonial India’

In 1829, the preface to the first edition of Gleanings in Science noted the myriad of obstacles facing British men who wished to indulge in scientific inquiry while residing in India. The population of like-minded compatriots was small and spread out over a vast territory. The impassable state of Indian roads coupled with high postal rates made sharing scientific correspondence unreliable and expensive. Finally, the editor of Gleanings in Science admitted that India’s enervating climate discouraged rigorous theoretical study. All of these obstacles, however, were precisely why the editor believed that the newly professionalizing discipline of science would flourish in India. His logic is evinced in his choice of title: Gleanings in Science. Gleaning grain from a field was low-status, backbreaking work performed by those with no other option. But, the editor also quoted Locke saying, one cannot “grasp at a time whole sheaves” of knowledge but rather “must be content to glean... from particular experiments.” India’s environmental challenges forced its budding scientists to engage in the low-status and backbreaking work of granular empiricism. Gleanings in Science therefore presented itself to its subscribers as an ideal contributor to scientific knowledge precisely because of its colonial constraints.

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