Colonialism – and the extent to which Czechs were entangled in it – is handled with tact and without the performative denunciations that often characterize discussions of the subject. It is a thoughtful contribution to ongoing debates. Only one observation is perhaps missing. It is striking that although France had no shortage of colonial ambitions; in the ‘scramble for Africa’ of the 1880s it was in fierce competition with Britain. Yet for Verne, a French writer, the modern world was primarily anglophone, with American and British citizens and culture being central not only to Around the World in Eight Days but also to many of his other novels, too. France was almost invisible in most of his novels of world-wide enterprise and adventure. The exhibition tacitly recognizes this, but it would have been good to see the issue acknowledged more directly.
Britain looms, too, in the background of the other exhibition, on Emil Holub, on the first floor of the museum, curated by Tomáš Winter of the Institute of Art History in Prague. For this traveller and explorer, often celebrated in Czech culture (he is still a fixed item in school history books in the Czech Republic), modelled himself on David Livingston. Unlike Livingston, however, he was not motivated by missionary zeal, but by a desire for scientific and cultural exploration. The exhibition traces out in detail Holub’s exploratory journeys, beginning with his departure from Prague for Cape Town in May 1872. On a nearly seven-year long expedition between August 1872 and May 1879 he travelled widely through British colonial territories, covering what is now South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia, mapping the land and collecting vast quantities of cultural and natural scientific artefacts. He then mounted a second exhibition, starting in December 1883, but it ended prematurely in tragedy and disaster in 1886, with two European members of the party dying of disease and an attack on the expedition by the inhabitants of the Mashukulumbwe land on the boundary of modern-day Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Although he planned a third expedition, lack of funds and illness prevented Holub from fulfilling his ambitions. The world of such expeditions was usually a masculine affair, but the exhibition takes care to highlight the important role played by Holub’s wife Růžena / Rosa Holubová, in planning and leading the enterprise.
Emil Holub exhibition. Photo: Matthew Rampely
Much of the exhibition consists of displays of objects that Holub brought back and donated to the National Museum, ranging from stuffed animals to items of clothing, weapons, ritual artefacts that Holub gathered from the various peoples he encountered on the way. It also displays his drawings, maps and notes taken during his expedition.
Holub undertook significant research while in southern Africa; he was the first to map the area around the Victoria Falls in any detail, for example. However, he gained prominence primarily because of his tireless promotion of his findings once he arrived back in Europe. In 1880 he published a widely read account of his travels in Czech, German and English, to be followed, in 1890, by a volume relating his second expedition. 4
Advertisement for Holub’s Seven Years in Africa (1880).
In addition, he delivered numerous popular lectures on his experiences. Yet what most ensured his lasting legacy were the two exhibitions he organised, first, in Vienna, in 1891, and then, a year later in 1892 in Prague. At a time when ethnographic exhibitions were an object of considerable popular curiosity (in 1895 Prague was the site of the large-scale Czechoslavic Ethnographic Exhibition), these events guaranteed Holub’s prominent profile. The Náprstek has has painstakingly recreated the 1892 Prague exhibition, with a plan of the grounds and period photographs showing the extent of the event.
Plan of the 1892 Africa exhibition with period photos.
They were financial failures, but they were nevertheless successful in promoting his activities. Yet as the poster for the exhibition indicates, Holub was trading in clichés about Africa, and it is at this point that the Náprstek adopts a more openly critical, inquiring tone, than that Jules Verne show. For it acknowledges the problematic aspects of Holub’s work, in which Holub portrayed African peoples as quasi-specimens of natural-historical scientific investigation and, in other writings, advocating the necessity of European colonial rule over them. The exhibition also deals head on with perhaps the most problematic legacy of Holub: the rock carvings of the San people in South Africa, which he transported back to Prague, having first detached them from their original location during his second expedition, damaging many in the process. This is an egregious example of the colonial plunder and acquisition of the objects of another culture that was so typical of European ‘explorers’ in Africa and elsewhere. It is no wonder that Holub’s second expedition was attacked by hostile local inhabitants, and one can only speculate as to the undocumented behaviour of Holub and his party.
Poster of the 1892 Prague Africa exhibition.
The exhibition highlights this problematic legacy, although without the ritualised denunciation that so often arises in discussions of this topic. As a result, Holub comes across as a much more ambiguous figure. His scientific achievements were noteworthy, but he typified the European colonial explorer that has been the subject of such censure in recent times. In this respect, the Holub exhibition is a welcome intervention in a long overdue debate over colonial complicity in Czech culture.
Where one might have wished for a little more in both exhibitions, was reflection on how it was that Czech society, in the middle of Europe, should have been so fascinated with travel in ‘exotic’ locales. The contemporary interest of, for example, the French, British, Americans and Germans is easily explained by the fact that they had intense political, economic and cultural contacts with peoples across the globe. Was it precisely because the Czech lands were landlocked that its inhabitants were so drawn to tales and adventures in ‘exotic’ places? Undoubtedly this will have been one reason, and both exhibitions would have benefited from some kind of exploration of this question. Although Around the World in Eighty Days mentions the fact of Verne’s popularity in the Czech lands, it says little about how his works were received, or about how we might interpret the significance of that phenomenon.
Both exhibitions thus left one wishing for a little more. Nevertheless, taken together, they are important contributions to the critical understanding of Czech culture and history, and they will hopefully create a platform for a more general public debate about the relation of Czechs to European colonialism and its legacies. Consequently, they should be on the agenda of anyone planning a museum visit in Prague.
Around the World in 80 Days continues until 31 October 2023, and Emil Holub until 31 May 2024.
1 Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century (Los Angeles, 1992).
2 Ida Pfeiffer, Eine Frauenfahrt um die Welt : Reise von Wien nach Brasilien, Chili, Otahaiti, China, Ost-Jndien, Persien und Kleinasien (Vienna, 1850).
3 M. E. Chamberlain, The Scramble for Africa (London, 2010).
4 Emil Holub, Sedm let v jižní Africe: příhody, výzkumy a lovy na cestách mých od polí diamantových až k řece Zambesi (1872-1879) (Prague, 1880) and Druhá cesta po Jižní Africe: Z kapského města do země Mašukulumbův: Cesty v Jižní Africe vykonané v letech 1883-1887 (Prague, 1890).