The Museum, the Colony and the Planet: Territories of the Imperial Imagination

Arjun Appadurai

This article is based on an inaugural lecture delivered at the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation on 28 February 2020. I am especially grateful to Achille Mbembe and Clive Kellner for their invitation and to the gracious audience on that occasion. I am also grateful to Dilip Menon, Vyjayanthi Rao and Erica Robles-Anderson for their penetrating comments on an earlier draft.

I begin with a strange inversion in the cultural life of Europe. Europe has extended itself across the planet through its tools of cartography, war and navigation and its bottomless urge to find and explore new examples of the boundary between humanity and its others. But as it has thus extended its dominion, it has also always wanted to bring its colonies closer to home, for the purposes of display, scientific study and entertainment. Thus, the museum and the colony are two ends of the same binocular urge. The museum, from this point of view, is a planet miniaturised by empire. But the planet, as we shall see, is also Europe’s museum. This observation is the starting point for my observations in this essay. I engage here with several recent debates that are generally not addressed in a common framework: one concerns the future of museums as creatures of Europe’s curatorial empire; another, the role of the colony in Europe’s internal debates about its unique character and mission; yet another, the relationships between the animation of museum objects and the objectification of human migrants; and the most urgent debate is about the fate of humanity in the future of our planet. These disparate debates come together in my sense that the story of the museum is bigger and more puzzling than its overt history suggests, and that this story is tied up with a theodicy. In this theodicy, the world is a special sort of object for Europe’s sense of its own transcendent mission, and museums are the home of those objects in which this transcendence can be sanctified, exhibited and enjoyed. This theodicy, as I aim to show, is an ongoing negotiation between Europe’s place on earth and the planet’s place in a wider natural order.


One of the persistent puzzles about the European world journey has been the question of the link between the universalism of the Enlightenment (which argued for the necessity of worldwide equality through the spread of knowledge, among other things) and the European imperial project, a project of spatial dominion that ended up also as a project of world conquest.1 In spite of many efforts to cast light on this inner affinity between the project of Aufklärung (Enlightenment) and the project of world dominion, by authors like Edward Said, Valentin Mudimbe, Immanuel Wallerstein and many others,2 we have made no real progress on this problem. Michel Foucault, who might have had something to say on this matter, did not speak much of the French imperial project, and even the great Max Weber did not elect to link the global journey of capitalist ethics to the project of empire. Karl Marx was excessively preoccupied with the dynamics of industrial capitalism.

To me, it does not seem likely that the journey from Renaissance humanism to Kantian universalism, roughly from the 16th to the 18th centuries in Europe, was disconnected from the project of Vasco da Gama and his many maritime successors to find the New World in searching for the Old World (and vice versa). Well before the age of industrial capitalism and the imperial adventure of Europe in the 19th century, Iberian sailors and conquistadors had connected the projects of conquest, conversion and economic plunder in the New World, a connection touched upon in the work of writers like Anthony Pagden and Peter Hulme, and even more brilliantly in that of Michel-Rolph Trouillot.3

Perhaps this is not the first time in human history that a project of ethical universalism was tied to a project of conversion and conquest: two large earlier examples are the Roman Empire and the early history of Islamic expansion. But there is something special about the European understanding of its ethical universalism (rooted in Enlightenment ideas of knowledge, reason and common humanity) and the urge to world exploration and global expansion that characterises the Dutch, English and French projects after 1800, and later the German, Belgian and Italian adventures, especially in Africa. What is this special quality?

I propose that this quality has something to do with the post-Renaissance European idea of universality, which requires complete global expansion for its own inner logic to be revealed and justified.4 In both the Roman and Islamic examples, the ethical project was self-standing and conquest was a secondary extension of this project. But the post-Renaissance European idea of universality could not see itself as fulfilled without covering the surface of the globe.

Empire, specifically European imperialism of the last three centuries, is a transverse spatial enactment of a defective vision of temporality in which time’s arrow always has a single direction and a known destination. That destination is the world written in the image of Europe. Europe, in this mode of thinking, is unthinkable except as the singular expression of time’s arrow, and this arrow is so conceived as to require its dominion over the globe. Thus, the world and the globe become one and the same, and each is seen as Europe’s tomorrow and Europe’s elsewhere. This is the road from universalism to globalism to a new kind of planetarism, a journey in which museums, as I will shortly argue, are a crucial invention and site.

This journey has another dimension, and that is the gradual shift in the European cartography of the cosmos, from the geocentrism of Ptolemy to the heliocentrism of Copernicus, though the Copernican model has been much debated and refined since his day. Whatever the debates surrounding the logic of the heavens after Copernicus, they certainly had two effects. One was to add one more stream of arguments against the Christian logic that put all nature at man’s disposal (man as the centre of the cosmos) and for a more skeptical sense of man’s place in the order of things. This trend also augmented the role of maps, astronomy and shipbuilding in the great sea journeys from southern Europe that led to the “discovery” of the Americas and, by the end of the 15th century, also to the discovery of India and Southeast Asia. All this suggests that the Copernican revolution might have reinforced the idea that Europe was the centre of the earth, even if the earth was no more seen as the still centre around which the other planets revolved. In this sense, and even if as part of a complex series of developments in religion, science and long-distance oceanic explorations, the planet was being staged as a canvas for European curiosity. The 17th century, the century that bridges Renaissance humanism and Enlightenment universalism, also sees the birth of the idea of the cosmopolis,5 which marks the idea of the polis and the cosmos as ideally being one and the same for Europeans, since they did not see the Others they encountered as either knowing the world or properly understanding citizenship.

This arrogation to Europeans of the sole claim to cosmopolitanism in a world of patently real cultural alternatives cannot be understood except by recourse to the lingering life of Christian thought well into the 18th century (and beyond, as we now know). From Augustine and Isidore of Seville in the earlier periods of Christianity to the dominant theologians of Spain and Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries, European Christians had little trouble finding theological support for the ethics of enslaving, exploiting or seeking to convert pagan populations from the Americas and Africa and later from Asia.6 This point of view did not square easily with the incipient universalism of the Enlightenment, which flowed from the ideals of equality, liberty and fraternity that took root in much of Europe in the late 18th century. This was especially true of the countries of Northern and Western Europe, which became the key players in European imperialism due to their technological and mercantile skills, which left Spain and Portugal behind in the global imperial game.

Thus, when the idea of the cosmopolis takes shape in Europe after the 17th century, what it exports to the rest of the world is less a unified value system or world-picture and more a series of efforts to paper over the cracks in the European metanarrative, the struggle between its contradictory trajectorist narratives. The battle between church and state, the struggle between private property and various visions of collective ownership, the tension between the rule of law and the rule of the masses, the opposition of this and otherworldly impulses in European religiosity – these are all examples of the unresolved contradictions that Europe played out in the imperial project, in which the continent encountered societies and ideologies that contained their own, often very different, visions of these matters. For cosmopolitanism is ultimately a matter of ideas, and what Europe exported in its imperial projects was its own demons, divisions and unresolved anxieties, this time on a global terrain. Nowhere is this troubled project of cosmopolis more evident than in the modern Western museum.

“In this light, I propose that ethnological objects currently in the possession of European museums must also be seen as migrants or as accidental refugees.”

There is widespread agreement that the museum as an institution emerges from ideas of collection, display, learning and taste with deep roots in Europe’s troubled encounters with those societies that were under imperial rule or came under some sort of Western sovereignty. Though most Western museums have indisputably come out of prior histories of conquest, commerce and political exploitation, the museum has struggled from its beginnings to be a forum for the broadening of knowledge and for the transformation of curiosities into popular experiences of the “savage sublime”.7 It joins the university, the scientific laboratory, the archive, the church and the prison in a complex of institutions devoted to the collected and researchable sublime. The governing ideology of this evolution expresses the best values of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment: knowledge, learning, curiosity, discovery, with the hope of achieving understanding across languages, cultures and social experiences.

But a funny thing happened to Western museums on the way to the 20th century. They became sites of deep misunderstanding of both the European self and the colonised, objectified Other. These misunderstandings are multiple, and they tell us something of the archaeology of our current ambivalence about museums. One such misunderstanding concerns the difference and the similarity between the museum of fine art and the ethnological museum. This misunderstanding has not yet been resolved, as we can see in the strange spectacle of the Humboldt Forum art centre in Berlin, where several classical fine art museums will encircle ethnological specimens newly arrived from the city’s periphery. Another such misunderstanding involves the very categories into which the objects of the savage sublime might be divided: functional, ritual, art, craft, shamanic, decorative and other categories were invented to help group, store, archive and (occasionally) display these objects. Here the tectonic struggle is between ethnological museums and natural-history museums, since they do not agree on how and where to draw the line between human and nonhuman others, a struggle first captured by Donna Haraway in her pioneering work on the American Museum of Natural History, in New York.8 The misunderstanding of the savage sublime is thus a three-way misunderstanding between the disciplines of ethnology, natural history and art history, each of which is in fact a product of the age of empire and has a different stake in the proper understanding of the objects of the Other.

Yet another misunderstanding that has plagued modern museums is the notion that they are also sites of research and teaching, similar to universities and colleges. This pedagogical ambition has its roots in figures such as Alexander von Humboldt (and his many admirers), who combined travel, science, research and collecting as seamlessly linked activities in their lives. But is the museum really meant to be a classroom? Can it entertain and educate at the same time? Does the museum really have the capacity to foster critical thinking and new knowledge in the manner of the best modern universities?

And finally, we have the figure of the museum as a sacred place, a place of icons, silence, transcendental experiences, a church for those whom a Christian God has failed or abandoned. Notwithstanding the recent efforts of modern museums to become more interactive, user-friendly, sociable and welcoming, the truth is that noise, loud commentary, playful explorations of museum spaces, jokes about signage, vulgarities about iconic objects, are generally discouraged. In this regard, museums continue to think of themselves as churches, in which a powerful clergy provides sacraments and glimpses of the divine to ordinary humans, who, for a brief period of time, are lifted into the space of the savage sublime or the more elevated Kantian sublime.

“The work of art and artists in the Global South in the period beginning with decolonisation may be viewed broadly as part of this struggle to create ‘artscapes’ outside the rule of the commodity and the narrative of the nation.”

Thus, the fundamental contradictions, confusions and conundrums surrounding modern museums are products of a foundational misunderstanding about whether the museum is a university, a church, a laboratory or a place of entertainment. The many debates surrounding museums in Europe and the United States today, including the recent one about the repatriation of objects taken from the sites of Euro-American empire, have roots in our failure to probe whether we want the museum to be a space for the sacred, the scientific, the educational or the spectacular, all at the same time. This categorical burden or overdetermination is rooted in the journey of Europe from the universality of the global to the universality of the planetary, which has been recovered in the last few decades.

In the history of Europe, the planetary sensibility has come full circle. It began as a term indicating a systematic, static, stable order of celestial objects, with Earth at its still centre in Ptolemy’s model, the sun at its centre in the Copernican model. The planetary has returned in a new guise in our times, due to our sense of our mortality as a species, our ethical loneliness, and the realisation that the global ecosystem has likely wrecked the possibility of a planetary future. This change requires us to see the ways in which the epoch of globalisation (roughly 1500 to now) was colonised by our sense of the universal, largely by confining it in the prison house of the nation-state.

If the central struggle of the era of globalisation can be seen as a struggle between capital and what Étienne Balibar has called “the nation form”9 to define the very terms of modernity, one place to look for the implications of this struggle is the transformation of the experience of time in the period of global capitalist modernity. On the side of the nation, the struggle over time takes the form, so shrewdly noted and theorised by Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities,10 of an effort to create a sense of national temporality and to create the illusion that national time is indeed all of time – time without residue. Nation-states sought to create this world of national time through many practices, most notably through the national production of history, in schools, monuments, calendars, clocks, memorials and so on.

There are important complicities between the efforts of capital to capture time by commodifying it and of the modern state to capture time by nationalising it. The key point is that these efforts were never wholly successful, not least because the very struggle between these large actors – global capital and the nation-state – created spaces, moments and opportunities for various forms of escape, opposition and critique. The work of art and artists in the Global South in the period beginning with decolonisation may be viewed broadly as part of this struggle to create “artscapes” outside the rule of the commodity and the narrative of the nation. These works were produced to escape the burden of repetition.


One feature of critical intellectual discourse and representation concerning time – especially in postcolonial contexts – is a central concern with repetition. Southern artists, scholars and intellectuals, whether they are inside or outside the apparatuses of the state (and no one is entirely outside), face a special and overwhelming burden. They always fear that they cannot represent anything without somehow inhabiting the optic of tradition, whether it is imaged as civilisation, culture or simply tradition. Much of the art that we see in postcolonial art-worlds can be read – as it is so often in the clichéd discourse of a certain cosmopolitan class – as an effort to harness the magic of tradition, the secrets of ancient civilisation, the styles of great cultures, and so on, to more inventively capture the present, the here and now.

Therefore, representing the present in the present became a very difficult move in the era of Enlightenment globalisation; for, whenever a social visionary or an artist appropriates a traditional form, they may win the battle for authenticity but lose the battle for originality. In the era of Enlightenment globalisation, with its special blend of ethical universalism, industrial capitalism and imperial modernisation, artists, intellectuals and activists of every type in the Global South have turned to the production of designs for alternative, multiple, counter or vernacular modernities, in order to negotiate new forms of space and time. In spatial terms, they wished to imagine new geographies inflected by interactive experiences with other cultural regions. Thus, they have contributed to the creation of new artscapes – new images of mediated space that cut across existing national geographies. But in so transforming space, creative cultural producers also had to face – especially in postcolonial societies – the burdens of repetition and the anxieties of tradition, which often force them to address only their own (imagined) traditions.

These efforts to produce alternative imaginaries of the modern under the shadow of industrial capitalism, global capital and pedagogy were not made easier by decolonisation. The force of Enlightenment globalisation and its special view of its own universalism continued to haunt the search for new imaginaries. In the last few decades, in the collective wake of a digital world, an Anthropocene-climate-based planetary crisis, and a host of massive transnational problems (including migration, disease, terrorism and authoritarianism), the critical question is: is awareness of the planet the last tragic phase of globalisation, or does it promise a new contract among imagined communities, new economies and new forms of governance? We cannot take on this problem in all its manifestations here, but let us return to the museum, to ask whether its imperial history can be redeemed by some new form of planetary imagination.


The European museum is an institution of empire, quintessentially and irredeemably, whether it speaks in the name of art, science, research, pedagogy or entertainment. In my view, museums, from their early beginnings in royal courts and spectacles, through their high-imperial affiliation with world fairs and exhibitions, to their current efforts to turn their black boxes into white boxes, are above all a solution to the turbulence, vitality, unruliness and sheer vivacity of their colonies. Museums are the greatest trustees of what I call “the still life of empire”. What do I mean by this?

I used the trope of “the still life of empire” more than 15 years ago, when I made an argument (in an unpublished lecture) about the development of the various visual forms through which British or British-sponsored artists, photographers, travellers, administrators and scholars in India chose to represent India to their domestic audiences. In the first half of the 19th century, roughly speaking, British art shows us Indian temples, mosques, forts, mausoleums and palaces with one uncanny characteristic. They seem devoid of people. They look uninhabited, deserted, silent, like Shelley’s Ozymandias etherised on a people-free Indian landscape. There are exceptions, of course, images in which humans can be detected, but these are relatively rare. As painting gradually gives way to various precursors of modern photography, roughly in the middle and second half of the 19th century, the imperial gaze becomes ethnological, and people now crowd the scene: pictures of kings and queens, Brahmins and untouchables, courtiers and craftsmen. In every case, they are tokens of a type: a caste, tribe, guild or sect, or of a social type, such as a king, snake charmer, holy man or prostitute. This makes sense, of course, given the imperial uses of the census, the ethnographic survey and the district gazette, which were India’s biggest contributions to the invention of modern surveillance, along with new forms of incarceration, torture and law. But these pictures of humans are also typological, classificatory, static, all in service of an undisturbed imperial gaze. The humans here are as immobile as the monuments were in the first half of the century. They are still lives. This stilling of the live and living scenes of the colony is in the service of a gaze that is simultaneously aesthetic, disciplinary, scientific and racialised.

“The objects of the imperial subject are stilled, silenced and stabilised to be classified, grouped, restored, inventoried, cataloged and, occasionally, exhibited, without the distraction of real lives, real societies, living dramas of labour, reproduction, power or ritual.”

The museum is the major site in which the human worlds of the colony are turned into still lives for publics in the metropolis. The savage sublime to which I referred earlier has stillness at its centre. The objects of the imperial subject are stilled, silenced and stabilised to be classified, grouped, restored, inventoried, cataloged and, occasionally, exhibited, without the distraction of real lives, real societies, living dramas of labour, reproduction, power or ritual. Just as the monuments of India were portrayed in colonial paintings and early photographs as without human beings, as uninhabited, so the objects of all the European colonies were stripped of their dynamic environments and sedated, disciplined and rendered supine in the precincts of the European ethnological museum. This is the way the chaos, dynamism and vital energy of the colonised world is turned into a series of still lives, available for study, entertainment or scientific curiosity. In this sense, the ethnological museum is the key to the still life of empire, and it has more than a hint of necrophilia in its orientation.

But there is one more twist to this story. In imperial capitals like London, Paris, Amsterdam and Brussels, and later Rome, Berlin, Chicago and New York, it was possible to separate the sedated objects of the colony from the actual human beings who were exhibited in circuses, spectacles, world fairs and other public settings. But today that separation is no longer easy to maintain, since the relationship of objects and humans has become confused and complicated, both for European post-imperial societies and for the Euro-American world. This is also why recent calls to “decolonise” the museum, especially in the big cities of the West, have a hollow ring, because they fail to notice the intimate ties between the fixities of the classical museum and the still-mobile debris of empire. Such myopia is more fully addressed in Ann Laura Stoler’s general critique in this issue of the currently fashionable call to “decolonise” many institutions, from classrooms and museums to curricula and public monuments. Such myopia also brings us to the connection between humans and objects in our times, which marks the end of the era of globalisation and the return of the age of the planet.


It is now commonly said that objects are mobile, animate and agentive subjects, capable of expressing purpose, desire and telos. Today, the debate about the line between human and nonhuman actors has become part of bigger debates about climate change, the Anthropocene, robotics, informatics, the life sciences and more. So, the concern of curators, ethnologists and museum professionals with how to curate, represent and display objects has become inevitably more heated and controversial. Furthermore, the building of all Western ethnological collections is inevitably tied up with difficult issues of conquest, commerce and power in the age of empire, as the recent debate about the repatriation of looted African artworks so clearly shows.

But, not all things are of equal interest to ethnological museums. “Objects” are of special interest to those assembling or maintaining such collections, because they have been deliberately crafted, designed, or manufactured for some special purpose in their places and times of origin. The materiality of objects is tied up with their pedagogical value, for what they can show, teach and illustrate. It is thus no surprise that objects are not often discussed in terms of their journey from their original homes to museums, but rather are made pure tools of representation, icons of other ways of living. What is lost in this erasure is a vital part of the biography of these objects.11 My own earlier insight was to say that these cultural biographies are part of larger social lives, which span long periods of time and large geographical distances, and reflect complex circuits of knowledge, trade and connoisseurship.12 Thus, the cultural biographies and the social lives of such objects are two sides of the same coin. In the case of ethnological objects, which end up in Western museums, these object biographies and social lives are tied up with complex histories in which empire, science, the market and Western popular curiosity all play some significant role.

Some scholars, like W.J.T. Mitchell, have seen images, also a type of object, as having wants and desires, as demanding something of us that is not a mere projection of our own wishes onto them.13 That is because objects – especially those that are the product of deliberate human design – carry the force of their histories, their journeys, the accidents and adventures that befall them, and these often show up in their shape, form and force. Objects are not simply mirrors of our own norms and perceptions in any given moment of viewing. They also resist interpretation, choreography and manipulation by those humans who might seek to make them speak in some particular way.

In this light, I propose that ethnological objects currently in the possession of European museums must also be seen as migrants or as accidental refugees.14 This angle might open a new perspective on museums, collections and curatorship in the contemporary West. The question of cultural objects that find a new home and a new life through the great museums of Europe is not usually connected to the question of refugees and other migrants and the sort of new life they might find in Europe. But these refugees need a new story as much as the objects in Europe’s museums do. On the face of it, the objects that have ended up in, for example, German custodianship did not come to Germany willingly or of their own volition. Like all objects discovered through conquest, collection and curation in the great museums of the West, they are accidental refugees. The human migrants who come to Germany today are there largely of their own volition, through acts of agency, aspiration and courage that allowed them to take enormous risks to cross the border into Germany. The objects in German museums, especially in the museums of Berlin, have historically been given voice through the work of the scholars, curators, exhibition professionals and museum educators who have ended up as trustees of these objects. The stories told on behalf of these objects are usually not about their journeys of displacement, relocation and rehabilitation, which are normally treated as irrelevant to their cultural significance. Rather, these stories are about their roles, uses and meanings in the places from which they originally came. Thus, these objects become texts or tools to tell stories about distant places, histories and cosmologies. Their status as accidental refugees is rarely voiced, exhibited or interpreted for the general public. In short, these objects are made into testaments of fixity and not of circulation, though complex processes of circulation and displacement are what is most important about them. They are rendered tokens of the still life of empire.

With human refugees, the situation is virtually the reverse. Their own stories usually focus on their dislocation, disenfranchisement and suffering as key elements of who they are. Both for those who welcome them to Europe and for those who are suspicious or fearful of them, these human refugees are seen as damaged, incomplete and unstable, and are viewed as disturbances and irregularities in the framework of citizenship, sovereignty and belonging that characterises unquestioned citizens of the countries of northern and western Europe, almost all previously imperial powers. Even when their pasts are seen as worthy of compassion, the futures of undocumented migrants are seen as illegible and problematic. In narrative terms, they are characters in search of a plot, players in a story without a resolution. The refugees who have arrived in Europe since 2015 are seen as artefacts of excessive circulation, while the objects that already live in European museum collections are seen exclusively as fixed and stable. A better balance could be achieved if refugee objects and refugee humans could be seen as complex and interactive mixtures of stability and dislocation.

“The question for museums is whether they can curate, exhibit and mediate flowing forms rather than etherise them upon the table of some sort of imperial gaze, and resist turning their animated motion into still lives for the comfort of the metropolis.”

Of course, it is not as if the foreign objects and the refugees who are today in Europe come from exactly the same places or tell neatly connected stories, since their geographies and dislocations are the product of different pressures and accidents. But they share the need for better stories, and this need might be more creatively met if they were seen as part of a general story of the way in which foreign lives can find a dignified home in Europe. Such a perspective takes us further than a simple repetition of older criticisms of European imperial collections, criticisms that usually focus on Orientalism, racism, ethnocentrism and so on. These criticisms have some validity. But a deeper strategy for ethnological collections could be found if we looked at the objects in these collections also as migrants – indeed, even as refugees or exiles – which share much with those human beings who are today causing much debate in Europe. In this manner we can deepen the standard view of power and inequality in the relation between Europe and its museological assets, for by adding migrancy to the earlier critiques, we introduce an element of mobility and contingency to the otherwise frozen tropes of Orientalism, racism and ethno-centrism. If we can see both human and nonhuman agents as having history, voice, purpose and force, perhaps we will treat our human migrants with a deeper sense of their humanity, just as we will treat our ethnological objects as more than mute representations of faraway times and places. But this requires European societies to ask whether they can repatriate previously colonial objects and still welcome ex-colonial subjects. Put differently, can European societies abandon both their necrophiliac approach to objects from the colony and their xenophobic reactions to subjects from the colony?


I now return to the issue of the planetary predicament and the place of museums today, as well as of their objects, curators, audiences and patrons. I agree with Dipesh Chakrabarty15 that there is a gulf between the global and the planetary, which is a product of recent discoveries about the climate, the planet and the Anthropocene, and of the minor place of humanity among the myriad vital beings that compose the known universe. Chakrabarty, as well as Achille Mbembe, Gayatri Spivak and other scholars across the natural and human sciences, has begun a discussion about our planetary time and their ethical, ontological and epistemological demands upon us.16 Each of these scholars has commented on the unpredictable transition from the global to the planetary in their own ways.

These discussions are symptoms of a major underlying contradiction between the view of humanity as too small to matter and the opposite view, that humanity is too big for the survival of the natural world. Too small, because we are one of millions of vital agents, and too big, because we have destroyed an entire planet on our own. In my view, we need to avoid a new hubris, after the age of globalisation, when our big mistake was to treat the globe as our museum and our museums as the globe. Now we are at risk of imagining that we can make the planet our oyster and use the museum (as well as the university or the lab or the cloud), as sites to crack it open to examine its insides. This is both vivisectionist and premature, since the global (in the form of inequality, race, disease, war and displacement) has hardly left us, and the planetary owl of Minerva has barely flapped its wings.

Museums can hardly be an exclusive site for understanding or managing this moment of transition, crisis and emergence. To contribute to this emergent possibility, museums need to pay attention to the global flow of forms, and to the friction and refraction that occur in the journey of these forms. This process requires attention to what I have earlier called the relationship between the circulation of forms and the forms of circulation.17 The question for museums is whether they can curate, exhibit and mediate flowing forms rather than etherise them upon the table of some sort of imperial gaze, and resist turning their animated motion into still lives for the comfort of the metropolis. This might require a different type of museum than what dominates our cities and art worlds today, one that combines the institutional stability of the contemporary museum with the impermanence and ephemerality of biennales and pop-up art events. Even this would not be enough. For such a denationalised, decolonised and progressive and planetary life to be explored, museums would need to be newly alert to those artists, activists, designers and curators who are prepared to forsake the universal and the global in support of the planetary. The museums with whom they work are those led by the few who are prepared to travel light, shed their inherited privileges and give up the illusion of permanence. These are all individuals who have found ways to go beyond the burden of repetition, the seductions of classification and the monopoly of good taste. Enlightenment universalism, as I have hinted, is the last refuge of all the other key Enlightenment values of the last four centuries. If we give up the universe, we might both discover the planet and find ways to extend its life, rather than remain enslaved to the impossible and brutal dream of turning the planet into a museum. The radical potential of such a planetary horizon is that it indexes a cosmos that is infinite and indefinite, centres that are also always peripheries, a cosmos filled with quarks, holes and folds. For the museum, this vision opens up a world where objects and actors always circulate, where sovereignty is always unstable, and no life is forever still.


Arjun Appadurai is Emeritus Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, where he is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Public Knowledge. He lives in Berlin, and is Visiting Professor at Humboldt University. In 2021 he received the President’s Award from the American Anthropological Association for his contributions to anthropology. He is the author or editor of more than 15 books and over a hundred scholarly essays. He is currently a co-editor of Public Culture and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

This essay is adapted from Appadurai, A. (2021) “The Museum, the Colony and the Planet: Territories of the Imperial Imagination”, in Public Culture vol. 33, no. 1, pp. 115–128. © 2021 Duke University Press. Republished by permission. All rights reserved.


  1. This part of the argument was initially proposed in Appadurai, A. (2013). The Future as Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition. London: Verso.
  2. Said, E.W. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books; Mudimbe, V.Y. (1988). The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press; Hopkins, T.K. and Wallerstein, I.M. (1982). World-Systems Analysis: Theory and Methodology. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.
  3. Pagden, A. (1982). The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press; Hulme, P. (1986). Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492–1797. London: Methuen; Trouillot, M.R. (2003). “Anthropology and the Savage Slot: The Poetics and Politics of Otherness”, in Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
  4. I first articulated this argument in Appadurai, A. (2017). “Museum Objects as Accidental Refugees”, in Historische Anthropologie vol. 25, no. 3, pp. 401–8.o Press.
  5. Toulmin, S. (1990). Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity. New York, NY: Free Press.
  6. Pagden, op. cit.
  7. These ideas were originally presented in Appadurai, A. (2020). “Museums and the Savage Sublime”, Tinius, J. and von Oswald, M. (eds.). (2020). Across Anthropology: Troubling Colonial Legacies, Museums and the Curatorial. Leuven: Leuven University Press, pp. 45–8.
  8. Haraway, D. (1984). “Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908–1936”, in Social Text no. 11, pp. 20–64.
  9. Balibar, E. (1990). “The Nation Form: History and Ideology”, in Review (Fernand Braudel Center) vol. 13, no. 3, pp. 329–61.
  10. Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.
  11. Kopytoff, I. (1986). “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process”, in Appadurai, A. (ed.) (1986). The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  12. Appadurai, A. (ed.). 1986. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  13. Mitchell, W.J.T. (2005). What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  14. This argument was initially made in Appadurai, A. (2017), op. cit.
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  16. Mbembe, A. (2017). Critique of Black Reason. Durham, NC: Duke University Press; Spivak, G.C. (2003). Death of a Discipline. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
  17. Appadurai, A. (2013), op. cit.

How to cite this article:
Arjun Appadurai (2024), "The Museum, the Colony and the Planet: Territories of the Imperial Imagination" in JCAF Journal: Interdisciplinary Knowledge from the South No. 1. Accessed 24 April 2024.