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Nathalie Cooper

History, University of Warwick

Thesis title:

Museum Collections and Legacies of Imperialism: Curating Colonial Violence at the Horniman Museum

My PhD is in collaboration with the Horniman Museum, London, and is supervised by Professor David Anderson, Dr Robert Fletcher and Dr Johanna Zetterstrom-Sharp. 

Due in large part to the efforts of indigenous activists seeking to reclaim their dispersed heritage, the need to publicly address legacies of imperial violence has become an increasingly urgent challenge for European museums housing colonial-era collections. Furthermore, following the Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020, previously well-regarded or benign historical figures have come under new scrutiny, leading to the removal of statues (either by force or committee) and the renaming of cultural institutions. The Horniman Museum sits at the nexus of these concerns, as both a colonial-era museum and the personal vision of founder Frederick J. Horniman, a tea trader and social philanthropist whose charitable reputation appears increasingly unstable.

This provides the political context for my PhD research, which explores the colonial legacies of the Horniman Museum’s founding collections. It situates the museum’s early institutional history within the context of the violent and extractive forces of empire, in order to investigate the museum’s complicity in processes of dispossession and the destruction of pre-colonial politico-material life worlds. In doing so, it takes a critical look at practices of collection, curation, display and interpretation, in order to reframe the metanarrative of the museum as constitutive of imperial power.

The time-period of my research spans from the opening of the museum in Surrey House in 1890 to c.1914. Not only has this period increasingly been identified as the zenith of British imperial violence, but it also saw the museum’s supposed transformation from an idiosyncratic personal collection of ‘curios’ to a more structured ‘scientific’ display with the explicit aim of educating the public. This was reflected in the way the founding collections were curated, stored, interpreted and assigned meaning. As the Horniman Museum’s collections from this period were large and diverse, I look specifically at collections from Egypt, Burma and South Africa.

This is a trans-disciplinary project, which combines historical archival research with insights from post-colonial studies, museum studies and cultural studies. I also take inspiration from Black feminist methodologies, particularly in regards to archival research. Crucially, I seek to refuse the logic of the British Empire’s “archival regime”, defined by Ariella Aïsha Azoulay as the “unstoppable ruling operation of classification, tagging, and naming of different groups to form a human index.”

Research Area

  • History


  • 'Bringing the World to Forest Hill: Creating Imperial Citizens at the Horniman Museum', (Midlands4Cities Research Festival, 15 June 2022)
  • 'Turning to Account: Early-Twentieth Century South African Collections at the Horniman Museum' (extended paper), (Warwick Department of History Postgraduate Conference, 26 May 2022)
  • 'Turning to Account: Early-Twentieth Century South African Collections at the Horniman Museum', (Museum Ethnographers Group Conference, 29 April 2022)
  • 'Restitution of Objects in Museums' with Fleur Martin & Mark Knights, (Warwick 'Now and Then' History Seminar Series, 23 February 2022)
  • 'Sensitive Histories' with Imogen Knox and Fabiola Creed, (Warwick Centre for the History of Medicine Work in Progress Fora, 11 January 2022)

Other Research Interests

  • Museums and heritage
  • Global histories of empire
  • Black feminist methodologies (particularly in relation to the archive)
  • Post-colonial studies
  • Social imperialism


Professional & Academic Background

I completed an MA in Culture, Diaspora, Ethnicity at Birkbeck, University of London in September 2020. My MA dissertation was titled Internal Frontiers: The British Expatriate Home in Late-Colonial Africa and it used archival oral history interviews with ex-colonial servants to interrogate domestic spaces as sites within which racial difference was constructed in relation to sex, hygiene, child-rearing and the body. I also have an undergraduate degree in History from the University of Oxford.

Before embarking on my PhD in 2020, I worked in the British Library's Sound Archive alongside studying for my MA part-time. Prior to that I worked at the Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington, and I have a further three years' experience in the charity sector.

Additional Responsibilities

Blog posts

Awards and Scholarships

  • AHRC Midlands4Cities Collaborative Doctoral Award, 2020-2024
  • AHRC Midlands4Cities Cohort Development Fund, 2021-2022