Collecting the Exotic

From the previous lecture I have become intrigued by the process of putting the ‘exotic’ on display and how this is linked with the action of Collecting. Although I discussed the aspect of the presentation of the Orient within visual culture quite lengthily I felt the need to delve into the multifaceted way this collecting takes place within Western society. Through reading Baudrillard’s ‘The System of Collecting’, it dawned on me the significance of trying to acquire such things and especially when dealing with living people, how collecting takes something from its original context and transforms it into a ‘piece’ for exhibtion. The narratives crafted and given to represent the differences between East and West, one viewed as ‘subject’ and the other ‘object’, leaves something to be possessed.

Colonialism to me is extremely problematic, I cannot fathom how a tiny nation on one side of the world can have such unrelenting power and hold over much bigger nations thousands of miles separate. The question of authority is what troubles me most, who gives this power and how can the infiltration of foreign land with the intent of control ever be just. I can’t help but imagine that the narrative would be entirely different if the roles were reversed, with those that inflict this upon others feeling attacked. found this illustration to be poignant, the animated quality is exaggerated and stereotypical in its representation of characters  with the intention of a satirical tone. This physical cutting and claiming is an act of power.  The concept of dividing land is one that I have genuinely contemplated before. When looking at the world map, it makes no rational sense that the organic shapes of the land could be dived with such harsh straight lines, as if someone has taken a ruler directly to the printed image. If so, who? and with what motive? When reflecting it is clear, these manmade alterations are only present in certain regions and this is often related to politics. When dealing with geography, the inhabitants of these lands are irrelative and come as a part of the package, either to the hindrance of the conquerer or benefit through means of exploitation.

Being shown such examples was hugely upsetting, especially with the story of Sarah ‘ Saartjie’ Baartman. Her hardship seems exemplary of the brutality of the western world. Having thought she would be admired for the ‘beauty’ she was told she possessed, her role within western exhibition was purely about ridicule. Her physical appearance was shown as a kind of freak show, diminishing her humanity by presenting her as a collected primitive being. Often it is  through the process of presenting another as low, that one looks to elevate themselves. However in such a abhorrent display, it seems to me that the ‘exhibitors’ were the ones who were truly savage.

Hagenback’s human zoo’s use a collected troop of ten or eleven individuals to represent a whole (seen above: Sudanese troop). This live exhibition compromised of choreographed dance, native huts, eating rituals by hand and any other practice that seemed sufficiently ‘foreign’ and barbaric. Thereby generating a performance for the white spectator to confirm the western narrative given of these people and their culture, not in order to learn but to judge. Those involved were easily replaceable, all needed was a skin colour, as all else was designed. In this form of collecting people for display, the desire is not to prevent something from becoming obseilte.  These individuals will still exist irrespective of how the west tries to intervene, it is about conquering and being able to posses.

Within display the most obvious way of demonstrating ownership over a culture is through the ‘souvenir’ and the way these collected objects are presented as ‘Other’ especially within the idea of taxonomy.  The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford is a overwhelming example of this. As it lies unchanged, the various exotic objects are grouped through this one defining factor that they are foreign and typically primitive. Not being able to change the exhibit stop us from forgetting that at a time this was completely acceptable. In a way this then becomes an exhibit of how people tell stories of the past.

In response to these ideas I visited Leighton House to examine first hand how efforts to present the oriental world, are diminished in the hands of westerners that curate this information with their own intent. Unlike a museum the furniture and objects are seen in situ. What is intriguing is that the entrance and main entertaining quarters are decorated in an Arab style. The outstanding beauty is indisputable yet there is an air to wariness I tried to poses as I took this in. This grandeur is used to add importance and value. However as I explored the rest of the house and looked to be more critical, the traditional western design complemented by these elements of orient, that were said have been imported specifically, evoke a sense of souvenir of cultural education. By being able to posses the Eastern beauty and design it is as if has been conquered and the collectors takes what they want from this foreign world but is still able to maintain their western value and superiority.

As well as this adaptations are seen in the presentation of the arab ceramic art, where deers are incorporated into a motif tiling detailing. This evidences western perspective disregarding the culture it displays, where in actuality, such art does not depict animate creatures due to specific beliefs. It seems as though within the western world there is no respect for the cultures we destroy in museums and collections. Much of the information provided about the house was about restoration and this led me to reconsider the concept of mummifying to send a human into eternal life. By laying these tiles and creating this installed collection of a home, Leighton cements his name but also a twisted and corrupt narrative of the Eastern culture he is said to have admired.


Leighton House Museum: London


En Chine Le gâteau des Rois et… des Empereurs. (1898) [Online image] Available at: <; [Accessed 25 Nov 13]

Pitt Rivers Musuem, Oxford, England. [Online image] Available at:

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Sartjee the Hotentot Venus. (1810) [Online image] Available at: <; [Accessed 25 Nov 13]

South Sami at the Hagenbeck Zoo. (1926) [Online image] Available at: <; [Accessed 25 Nov 13]

Sudanese troupe at the Hagenbeck Zoo. [Online image] Available at: <; [Accessed 25 Nov 13]



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