Modern Institutions and the Civilizing Mission

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Colleges, School and Institutes


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,’ one which ‘stood for peace’ and ‘fair labor conditions.’ 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’. 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.”’

In this essay, I argue 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.

Bibliographic note

The article appeared in Modernism/modernity Print Plus, not in the print journal.


Original languageEnglish
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 31 Aug 2020


  • institutionalism, global modernism, empire, colonialism