Decolonizing the Smithsonian: Museums as Microcosms of Political Encounter

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This article investigates the relationship between politics, decolonization and museums. It explores the curation of the Asian and African collections at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, 1950-1970, in the context of US involvement in the ‘end’ of European empire, Third World nationalism and the Cold War. Close analysis of museum archives reveals the diversity, dynamism and occasionally progressive nature of museum anthropology during a period often considered uninteresting and even moribund. It demonstrates the myriad entanglements between museums and US government policy, and how cultural representation in the US was influenced by the specificities of colonization and independence in different regions of the Global South. Museums are positioned as agents in mediating wider political change.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1492-1520
Number of pages29
JournalAmerican Historical Review
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 5 Dec 2016

Bibliographical note

This is a pre-copy edited, author-produced version of an article accepted for publication in American Historical Review following peer review. The version of record 'Decolonizing the Smithsonian: museums as microcosms of political encounter by Claire Wintle, American Historical Review Vol.121, issue 5 ,p.1492-1520 ' is available online at:, DOI 10.1093/ahr/121.5.1492


  • museums
  • decolonization
  • Cold War
  • South Asia
  • Africa


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