From Empire to Island: Interpreting Sites to British Imperialism in London
by Joseph A. Munch
Thanks to a $1,100 grant from the King Creativity Fund, I was able to spend time in London, England, examining the ways in which British imperialism is remembered and commemorated in public spaces such as open-air memorials and museums. From my research in London and other data, I propounded a thesis concerning the formation of British national identity in the country’s post-imperial existence. That is to say, I found out, first hand, how the British perceive themselves now that they are, for all intents and purposes, no longer a worldly force with which to be reckoned.
I undertook this particular project for a number of reasons. First, because I am interested in the subject matter of the project: throughout my eight semesters at Southwestern University, I have repeatedly taken classes in which I have studied theories of memory and identity, and I have discovered that I am fascinated by the ways in which these realms overlap and interact. Still, despite my familiarity with these interrelated subjects, I felt as though I had merely scratched the surface of what is actually a much deeper and more intricate relationship of discourses. By conducting original research outside the “bubble” of Southwestern–indeed, outside the “bubble” of America itself–I was able to garner a better understanding of how concepts of memory and identity intermingle within, if not effectively construct, public discourse.
Second, this endeavor has been very useful as I prepare for a life after college. While at Southwestern, I have developed a critical perspective as a student of literature and history. As a student who hopes to eventually pursue a career in higher education, though, this analytical view of the world still required some focusing. Before undertaking this research project, I was quite familiar with library researching methods, but I remained relatively unaware of what it meant to do “field” research. The time I spent in London, which included conducting research beyond the confines of a library, was a valuable “hands on” experience to which I could refer time and time again as I continue my education. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I chose to undertake this particular course of study because by examining British identity as it is publicly portrayed, I was able to gain a more thorough knowledge of life in the United Kingdom. Consequently, I am able to apply this experience–and will continue to do so indefinitely–to generate globally-minded dialogue that serves to educate and enlighten.
While in London, I visited a number of museums and public memorials. By employing the “critical eye” I have developed within and without the classroom at Southwestern, I viewed these various buildings and monuments from a conveniently diagnostic perspective. Among other things, I examined how the museums are constructed, in circumstances of both the spatial (how these museums are organized) and the rhetorical (what these museums say, literally, about their contents). The public monuments I scrutinized in similar terms. The result is not only a study of British imperialism, but also examination of spaces and objects how those items are manipulated to present the viewer with a constructed perspective of a society. In the instance of my own research, I discovered that the museums and monuments in London lend themselves to an imperial mindset within Britain.