MAA has recently acquired a large collection of missionary postcards depicting life in various mission fields during the first half of the 20th century. These postcards offer valuable insights into the activities of missionaries and how they promoted spiritual and imperial propaganda.
Among the many postcards, one in particular caught my attention. It was created for an exhibition called ‘The Orient in London,’ organised by the London Missionary Society (LMS) in 1908. The front of the postcard features an image from the exhibition showing a Chinese pagoda. Such images were commonly used in exhibitions at the time to evoke the ‘exoticism’ of China. On the back of the postcard, there is a unique message written during the exhibition. It serves as a testament to the emotional connection between the writer, the special moment they were experiencing, and the future recipient. The message, addressed to a Miss Skinner in Gosport, reads: ‘I am writing this while waiting for the pageant to begin.’
What exactly were missionary exhibitions? What types of pageants did they hold? And what message were they trying to convey with spectacular elements such as pageants?
We may not know which specific performance the sender of the postcard was referring to on that occasion. But we can provide a brief history of human presence in missionary exhibitions during the early 20th century.
According to South African missiologist David Bosh, viewed as a civilising religion, Christianity in the colonies played a significant role in justifying colonisation. This concept, inherited from the Enlightenment era, portrayed the mission of the late 19th century as a symbol of progress and modernity (Bosh, 1991). It allowed missionaries to firmly align themselves with the European culture of the time and resonated with public opinion, which viewed missionaries as educators deserving of sympathy and admiration.
Like most 19th century international exhibitions, missionary exhibitions aimed at providing an educational and sensory experience for those curious about life in the colonies. This was achieved through the display of objects such as ‘handicrafts’ and ‘eastern goods’, as well as the recreation of living villages, ‘native’ hymns, and theatrical performances featuring real people on stage. The exhibitions sought to convey both the work of missionaries and the lives of the colonised people before and after the arrival of the missionaries. In so doing, they aimed at demonstrating the positive impact that missionaries had made in the colonies and how their efforts had successfully facilitated the process of Christianisation. The objects and pageants showcased at missionary exhibitions represented the living conditions, environment, and beliefs of ‘native’ people, arousing curiosity and allowing observers to witness the missionaries’ efforts towards modernisation and civilisation in the colonies.
In Britain, various missionary societies including the LMS organised exhibitions, which conglomerated several mission fields in one city, allowing visitors to experience the colonised world without travelling. This approach should be seen within the wider context of an emerging interest in ethnographic museums in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. During this time, it was common practice to collect, conglomerate, and categorise objects based on colonial perspectives. In addition to museums, these objects were often displayed in international exhibitions and world fairs, which began in the 1840s and lasted until the 1960s, albeit with significant changes after World War II. Through the display of material culture and the staging of shows with real actors, both museums and international events like these played a crucial role in shaping knowledge and public opinion about the relationship between European empires and their colonies.
The postcard at MAA provides evidence of the presence of performances and the enthusiasm of visitors for these events. The goal was to disseminate a vivid image of life in distant lands with the physical presence of foreign people dressed in ‘native’ costumes. In some smaller and provincial missionary exhibitions it was common practice to find local people imitating the ‘natives’ using their typical costumes and accessorises. Sadiah Qureshi refers to this practice as ‘peoples on parade’ and argues that it became more prevalent in the streets of London since the Victorian era. These events were racially driven as they sought to depict ‘otherness’. However, they were often seen as populist and spectacular entertainment rather than scientifically significant. The display of indigenous people in their natural habitat was part of the fascination with ethnography, but it lacked a scientific approach and leaned more towards amusement. Western people invented and portrayed ‘natives’ as savage and wild, perpetuating stereotypes (Blanchard, Boëtsch & Jacomijn Snoep, 2011).
In the case of missionary exhibitions, postcards depicting people in their ‘native’ attire are important sources for understanding the role of the Church in these cultural and political events. Another postcard from MAA shows people dressed for a Chinese wedding at a missionary exhibition held in St James Hall, Manchester in 1907. It portrays both Western and Chinese individuals ready to be presented to an audience. The representation of material culture in these postcards reinforces stereotypes and contributes to the image of an imaginative China, complete with typical hairstyles, fans as accessories, and a table set for a Chinese tea ceremony.
Living villages or ‘human zoos’ served as powerful propaganda tools for missionary activities and educational resources for the community. Visitors could experience the world through their senses, seeing and hearing live performances. These performances not only represented the cultures of ‘native’ people but also aimed to educate visitors about their position within the Empire, encouraging them to view it as a divine gift for evangelising the world. Everything in these exhibitions was organised around a spiritual message that went beyond the objects on display and the people on stage. However, it is likely that the broader public attended them out of curiosity and for the spectacle, amusement, and exoticism that they offered, rather than for religious reasons. The educational programs associated with each exhibition were influenced by the political message related to the Empire and the Church’s mission to convert the ‘heathens’.
A thorough analysis of missionary periodicals and national newspapers demonstrates how widespread the phenomenon of missionary exhibitions was in Britain. They were even more prevalent than international exhibitions and world fairs. Historiographically, however, missionary exhibitions have not received the same level of attention as their larger counterparts. This is partly due to the limited availability of historical sources relating to these smaller events in the big archives, while regional institutions might reveal a new panorama of exhibition histories. A dedicated study on this topic is yet to be written, and it could shed light on these exhibitions concerning the controversial presence of human performances.
Blanchard, P., Boetsch, G., and Snoep, N. J. (2011). Exhibitions: L’Invention du Sauvage. Paris: Musée du quai Branly.
Bosch, D. J. (1991). Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. 20th anniversary ed. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis.
Qureshi, S. (2011). Peoples on Parade: Exhibitions, Empire, and Anthropology in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.