Difference Between the Self and the Heathen: European Imperial Culture in Dutch Missionary Exhibitions, 1909–1957

M.P. Groten

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


'Imperial culture’ is a concept coined by British historiography to describe the influence of imperialism on metropolitan British culture. Although it is now used in other national historiographies as well, it would appear that we have not yet realised the concept's full potential. This article, drawing on recent scholarship emphasising the transnational connections in European imperial cultures, investigates the implications of seeing imperial culture as a European phenomenon and as a European mentality. For this purpose, this article uses the narrative that was propagated at a specific national practice where empire met a metropolitan European society as a case study: missionary exhibitions in the Netherlands in the first half of the twentieth century. Here, Catholic and Protestant missionaries displayed objects from the indigenous, colonised populations who they were trying to convert and hereby legitimised and underpinned imperialism in Dutch culture. However, their significance went deeper than that. This article argues that the missionaries’ narrative transcended the national level and promoted ideas of Christianity as a European religion and civilisation as a European trait. A European community based on religious, cultural, and racial traits was set against a generic non-European heathen world. However, national and denominational frames of reference also remained in place. With this case study, the article explores the possibilities and difficulties that arise from studying imperial culture as a European mentality.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)490-513
Number of pages24
JournalThe Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History
Issue number3
Early online date29 Oct 2018
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • Dutch colonialism
  • Imperial culture
  • ethnographic objects
  • exhibitions
  • missionaries
  • religion


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