British academy

From Plunder to Preservation - Britain and the ‘Heritage’ of Empire, c. 1820-1940

21-22 March 2009, Cambridge Victorian Studies Group, University of Cambridge


The invention of heritage has become an important, yet highly fragmented, field in nineteenth-century studies. The conference aims to shed light on what has so far remained under-explored in the scholarly literature, the links between preservationism and imperialism. So far most research on preservationism has been divided into necessary and insightful area studies or test-cases within the British Isles. The aim of this conference is to bring together specialists on preservation in Britain and the colonies (from a range of countries and disciplines) to map a more entangled picture of preservation in the British Empire. Taking into account the importance of competition between different European imperial powers, the conference focuses in particular on the relationship between metropolis and dependant heritages. The underlying and most general questions might be put most crudely like this: what response did an Imperial authority take towards the heritage of a dependent area, how did imperial and indigenous preservationism interrelate, and how did this come to affect or interact with attitudes towards the heritage of the home country? The programme is divided into six roundtables over two days. The opening roundtable From Plunder to Preservation looks at the late 18th- and early 19th-century background, asking how the expanding European powers treated the ancient sites they encountered. Next, the privileged role of the Classical World is examined. How did the imperialists treat classical remains and how did this treatment in turn influence colonial preservation? As the Biblical World played an equally crucial part in the Victorian cultural imagination, the following panel analyses the preservation of religious sites under British domination. Empires and Civilizations examines how imperialists dealt with the monuments of non European civilizations, which often had been empires themselves, from India to Egypt and Mesoamerica. Interactions with the New World extended the concept of heritage to include endangered nature and peoples but were also characterised by transatlantic attempts to preserve the built heritage of the English speaking world and the British Empire long after the independence of the United States. The conference closes with a roundtable on imperialist versus nationalist preservation and provides an outlook onto the later 20th century.

The conference has been generously sponsored by: The Cambridge Victorian Studies Group; King’s College, Cambridge; Boston University; The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and The British Academy.


The conference takes place Saturday, 21st March, 10:30 am - 6:00 pm and Sunday, 22nd March 9 am - 5 pm, King’s College, Cambridge.

Registration: £35. Concessions £15.

To register please email