Gift Giving at the ‘End’ of Empire: Museum Networks and Museum Histories

Activity: External talk or presentationOral presentation


This paper examined gift-giving practices and museum networks in and beyond Britain during the mid-twentieth century. While post-war museums are often seen as static and insular, tracing gift exchanges along curators’ networks gives new insight into the dynamic, connected and transnational nature of museums, particularly of world cultures collections, at this time.
Arjun Appadurai identifies some gifts as ‘reflective and constitutive of social partnerships and struggles for pre-eminence’. In the mid-century, as European empires transformed and newly independent nations emerged, global networks of museum professionals attempted to tackle these changes: within this context, gifts were indeed reflective and constitutive of new relationships, as well as of political and professional struggle. Tracing select museum gift-giving practices across nations and institutions in the post-war period, this paper investigated the partnerships embodied by these gifts, considering the terms of their exchange. What demands did they contain, and what were the limits of their sociability?
Finally, I consider the conditions of exploring gifts for historians of museum networks. Research on museum gifts, often via accession documentation and acquisition correspondence, tends to privilege the sociable partnership embodied in the moment of exchange. Yet this is only part of the gift’s reach: a focus on the point of transfer can retrospectively stabilise networks that were in fact brief, unsteady and shifting. Here, I argue that historians also have an obligation to read against and along the grain of the museum gift, exploring the fluid relationships that continued after the moment of exchange, to understand museum networks in their full complexity.
Period14 Jul 2021
Event titleMuseums and Galleries History Group Conference: Museum Networks and Museum History
Event typeConference
OrganiserMuseums and Galleries History Group
LocationLondon, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • museums
  • gifts
  • transnationalism
  • exchange
  • Decolonization
  • imperialism