Counter-Memories: Photographs of Empire in Country House Collections

Supervisory team: Professor Dan Hicks (Oxford) and Dr Christo Kefalas (National Trust)

Almost all National Trust country house properties have historic photographic collections. These photographs are usually associated with family members who lived at the houses. Among them are many images of the British Empire. Some albums relate to personal, family or business travel, while others derive from military or administrative service overseas. These colonial images range from the touristic to the anthropological, from leisure to expedition, and from exoticism to the domestic.

This project offers a unique opportunity to undertake a ‘visual archaeology’ of these virtually unstudied photographic collections. The aim of the research is to explore the relationships between empire, knowledge and regimes of photographic visuality in post-colonial perspective, through studies of historic photographs as zones of contact or conflict in the past and as ongoing legacies and aftershocks of colonialism in the present. Specific material that could be form the focus of the research ranges from well documented collections at Polesden Lacey in Surrey or Packwood House in Warwickshire to many other little-understood collections at other properties. The sheer richness and unstudied nature of the material means that most regions in which 19th- and 20th-century British imperialism operated could form the geographical focus of the research – from the Caribbean to Africa, the Middle East and Asia. This geographical focus will be agreed between the supervisors and the students before the research begins.

The project offers a unique opportunity for the geo-political dimensions of these neglected and provincial colonial archives to be explored, for example through the creation of new connections with places and descendant communities beyond the country house. Research themes developed by the research student around this material may include questions of ‘race’, class, gender, genre and representation, objectification and orientalism, visibility and silence, and knowledge and memory, ranging from what Marie-Louise Pratt called the ‘transculturation’ of ‘imperial eyes’ to the ongoing status of the colonial gaze of these visual pasts in contemporary, postcolonial Britain. Though the embedding of the studentship in the ongoing operation of National Trust properties, the ‘Counter-Memories’ project will foreground for the student the practical challenges of exploring unseen pasts through visual culture.

Applicants will normally have an academic background in an Arts, Humanities or Social Science discipline such as Archaeology, Anthropology, Art History, Museum Studies, or History.

List of site pages