Introducing the project

Sandra Kemp, V&A project Principal Investigator, is our first blogger.

We are launching ‘The Universal Histories and Universal Museums’ website to coincide with the call for papers for the first project workshop.

This collaboration between the V&A, the Musée du quai Branly and the University Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense aims to develop a comparative critique of approaches to universal histories in museums and of the role of museums in building knowledge about the future. Through transnational perspectives on the assembly of museum collections, the project examines how history is made, displayed and disseminated through the uses, legacies and representations of the past. The project grew out out of a workshop in Paris in 2015 organised by the Arts and Humanities Research Council ‘Care for the Future’ and LABEX ‘Pasts in the Present’  and is funded through these schemes.

I am leading the UK research, and Professor Hervé Inglebert is the project co-investigator in France, along with André Delpuech at the Musée du quai Branly. Chiara Zuanni is the project research fellow, based at the V&A. The first phase of the project combines critical investigation of universal histories and universal museums through four workshops – two in Paris and two in London – and two historical case studies, based in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Musée du quai Branly. Our main focus is the period 1850-1914, a period in which museums emerged as civic organisations across Europe (and beyond). We will be centering our museum research on the 1876 Loan Exhibition at the V&A (then called the South Kensington Museum) and the American collections at the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro (1880-82). The project’s second phase will consolidate the first phase in a conference, publications and digitisation of key archival resources.

The project is an interdisciplinary as well as transnational collaboration, encompassing historiography, material culture, and the development of knowledge in the public sphere. We will explore and critique ‘universal histories’ and how they were informed by museums approaches to collections and exhibitions. We are interested in how museums create new knowledge and – through the agency of the objects they acquire, catalogue, and display – inform the future of knowledge creation and subject specialisms.

We’ll be blogging regularly about our activities and research progress.

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