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Culture, Things, and Empire: Series One, Materials

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Culture, Things, and Empire: Series One, Seminar Four: Materials (17 March 2021, 5-6pm UK time)

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Our first series contains six seminars, each one based on a particular theme, which will take place every month consecutively between December 2020 and May 2021. Each speaker will present their 10 minute paper followed by a response to both papers by their respondents. Group discussion, questions and comments will take place in the time remaining. We look forward to welcoming you to the CTE Seminars!

Lily Crowther (Oxford University and the V&A)

The raw materials of Empire: collecting and displaying colonial timber in Victorian London

Abstract: Colonial timbers were widely exhibited in Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. Often grown in landscapes transformed by white settlers, these woods were not merely the product of efficient extractive colonialism, but of a more insidious destruction of earlier ecologies and systems of knowledge. This seminar will explore how two London institutions – the Museum of Construction and Building Materials (MCBM) and the Museum of Economic Botany (MEB) – approached the collecting and display of timber from British colonies. Both museums made acquisitions at international exhibitions, where woods crossed the boundaries between taxonomic systems: samples were exhibited by exporters primarily for a commercial market, but judged, classified and labelled according to scientific conventions. Likewise, the two museums employed different taxonomies and modes of interpretation to situate their collections within distinct disciplines. At the MCBM, the collections were organised according to their function within the built environment. Raw materials took their place alongside building components, decorative products and architectural models, and the woods were presented to an audience of engineers, architects, builders and their clients as consumer products. Meanwhile the MEB positioned itself at a different point in the lifecycle of the object, focusing on the production of timber rather than its use. Its displays and interpretation occupied an uneasy middle ground between the ‘pure’ science of botany and a focus on commercial possibilities. Physically identical objects could form part of very different systems of knowledge in these two settings. But despite their differences, in their methods of collecting and organising wood samples both museums treated indigenous knowledge of plants as itself a raw material in the process of creating metropolitan knowledge. This echoed a wider conception of empire as the site of extraction and production of raw materials, to be classified and consumed in the metropole.

Biography: Lily Crowther is working on an AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Partnership project at Oxford University and the V&A, exploring the history and legacies of the Museum of Construction and Building Materials. Her research interests include the production and transmission of material knowledge, and the relationships between craft, architecture, and the building trades. Lily was formerly a curator at the V&A (2006-2012); she now works part-time as Curator (History) at Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum.

Tamar Rozett (Duke University, North Carolina)

Soap, Empire, and the Voyage from Clean Clothes to Clean Bodies

Abstract: Although soapmaking technology has been globally known for millennia, its use in the West was transformed in modern times. Whereas seventeenth century Western men and women concurred that personal cleanliness consisted first and foremost of shifting into fresh linen, by the early twentieth century no body was considered clean unless it was scrubbed with soap. This change was nowhere more apparent than in industrial Britain, where the accelerated consumption of soap first took place in the West as the use of soap per capita multiplied by over five times over the course of the nineteenth century.

In my project, I propose that this shift in soaping perceptions and practices was shaped by imperial ventures, such as the ways the availability of soap hinged on imperial resources. Allowing for both diversified products and reduced prices, the imperial reach of industrialized manufacturers made soap accessible to more women and men who utilized it in ever more creative ways. More importantly, I investigate how changing theories concerning the constitution of dirt and how to combat it were impacted by East-West encounters. Following in the footsteps of Britons who bodily experienced different forms of cleanliness in East Asia, in the Middle East, or in the Indian subcontinent, I probe whether these encounters changed their bodily attitudes and societal outlooks. Lastly, I attend to the ways empire figured within the rising levels of anxiety surrounding new ideas of cleanliness centered on soaping and scrubbing.

My CTE presentation will offer methodological thoughts on the problem of pinpointing historical change. Though the endpoints of this phenomenon tell of a reverberating transition – from cleaning clothes to cleaning bodies – still it is difficult to untangle the causes that contributed to this gradual but sweeping change. In hopes of both receiving and inspiring insight, I will share my struggle with historical source materials and the findings it has led me to.

Biography: Tamar Rozett is a historian of modern Britain and its empire. Her dissertation, Technology and Emotions: The Case of the British Empire Mail, 1840-1898 (the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, July 2020), investigated the changing technology underlying the British Empire mail and its emotional effects on empire family correspondents. Tamar is presently a guest scholar and lecturer at Duke University, North Carolina, where she is promoting a new project, Soap: A History, centering on the modern ascension of soap in British and imperial contexts. Her project proposal has been accepted for publication by the Van Leer Global Objects Series (Hebrew, the Van Leer Institute Press).

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