Dr Emma West’s article on Empire Marketing Board posters is now available at Modernism/modernity as part of a Print+ cluster on ‘Modernist Institutions‘, edited by Megan Faragher and Caroline Z. Krzakowski.
Established in May 1926, the Empire Marketing Board (EMB) was established by the British government to increase sales of Empire goods and products. Yet its aims quickly shifted from the selling of goods to ideas. Through their campaigns, the publicity committees portrayed the empire as a ‘forward-looking conception,’[i] one which ‘stood for peace’ and ‘fair labor conditions.’[ii] This rhetoric of empire as a force for good characterizes what has variously been termed the ‘white man’s burden,’ the ‘civilizing mission’ or ‘imperialist philanthropy’.[iii] As Michael Mann notes in his essay on the ‘civilizing mission’ in India, central to this notion was the assumption that ‘colonial subjects were too backward to govern themselves and that they had to be “uplifted.”’[iv]
Image: Edgar Ainsworth, The Market Garden of the Tropics – Ceylon Tea, part of the ‘Buy from the Empire’s Gardens‘ poster set (1931). Image courtesy of Manchester Art Gallery.
In this essay, Dr West argues that the nineteenth-century doctrine of the ‘civilizing mission’ defined not only the way in which the Empire Marketing Board interacted with ‘native’ populations, but also domestic audiences. The imperialist idea that the populace needed to be ‘improved’ by an artistic, legislative or intellectual elite characterized the work of many interwar institutions, regardless of whether they addressed those living in the colonies, the British Isles, or both. Modern or modernist aesthetics were a crucial part of this ‘civilizing mission’: they helped not only to construct an image of the British empire as modern and progressive, but also to instill in viewers a modern and progressive appreciation of contemporary art.
[i] Stephen Tallents, “Prelude to Publicity,” Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Sir Stephen Tallents Papers, ICS79/32, 4.
[ii] Tallents, “Publicity,” ICS, Tallents Papers, ICS79/33/1, 11.
[iii] “White Man’s Burden” was a phrase used by Rudyard Kipling in his 1899 poem of the same name; Homi Bhabha discusses both the “Civilizing Mission and the White Man’s Burden” in The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), 83. For a history of the “civilizing mission,” see Michael Mann, “‘Torchbearers Upon the Path of Progress’: Britain’s Ideology of a ‘Moral and Material Progress’ in India,” in Colonialism as Civilizing Mission: Cultural Ideology in British India, ed. Harald Fischer-Tiné and Michael Mann (London: Anthem, 2004), 4-5. “Imperialist philanthropy” is Edward Said’s term: see Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage, 1994), xxii.
[iv] Mann, “Torchbearers,” 4.