Redrawing Imperial Maps of Knowledge: UNESCO, Decolonization, and International Collaboration in Science and Arts Expertise, 1945–65

AHA Session 328
National History Center of the American Historical Association 11
Sunday, January 8, 2017: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Room 402 (Colorado Convention Center, Meeting Room Level)
James P. Mokhiber, University of New Orleans
Mathilde Leduc-Grimaldi, Royal Museum for Central Africa

Session Abstract

The papers in this panel all examine how UNESCO provided a forum for developing new maps of science and arts expertise during the decolonization of Africa and Asia. UNESCO has long been recognized as a key institution of post-1945, which provided the blueprints for a moral, idealistic and peaceful world built around global collaboration and unity. Its early leaders, including Joseph Needham and Julian Huxley, were apostles of a humanistic positivism, promising a path out of war and conflict through the creation of shared efforts to understand the world and its nature. As a result of this guiding ideology, UNESCO’s early initiatives focused on building international institutions which encompassed all of the world, incorporating existing nations, imperial territories, and newly decolonized nations. This universal aspiration stumbled quickly, however, when the USSR refused to join UNESCO, and by the late 1940s post-war polarity quickly diminished the global scope. UNESCO international institution building, still possible even without Soviet participation, made a quick start but slowed and then stopped in the 1950s, when the international research laboratories, first envisioned by Joseph Needham, did not receive the support or funding needed to make them successful.

Our papers show that despite UNESCO’s modest contributions to internationalism in the immediate post-World War II era, UNESCO reshaped imperial networks of science and arts expertise in the period of decolonization. Viewed from UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris, the early global scientific dreams were only partially fulfilled. Seen from outside of Europe, however, the ethos of global knowledge promoted by UNESCO provided an opportunity to redraw the imperial maps of knowledge. Scientists and intellectuals outside of Europe enthusiastically linked themselves to UNESCO and its initiatives. This allowed them to forge new connections which circumvented the traditional networks of colonial science and arts expertise. These new relationships, shaped within the ideals of UNESCO, were less hierarchical than imperial networks, and possibilities opened up in the colonies, and former colonies, that did not depend on metropole support and funding. Andersen’s paper shows how this change influenced the relationships between UNESCO and the inter-colonial science organizations that the imperial powers had established after World War II. In Asia, Goss analyzes how the ethos of UNESCO allowed for the development of new regional research projects which bridged old imperial divides, and which enrolled scientists from newly independent nations. Mokhiber's paper traces how continuities and disjunctures in the transfer and transformation of arts expertise in North Africa created new discourses around heritage sites and the traditional arts.

The papers in our panel show that UNESCO opened up new possibilities for international relationships that not only bridged Europe and decolonized Asia and Africa, but also forged new regional collaborations which had been impractical before. This included relationships between British and French colonies in Africa, cooperation between Southeast Asian scientists and intellectuals, and for new nations after independence, an opportunity to participate as an equal in science and culture. By the mid-1960s these collaborations had created new global discourses of knowledge and expertise.

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