Photos and Phantasms

Decolonising the Learned Society (DLS): The legacies of the British Council/Royal Geographical Society exhibition, Photos and Phantasms (1998)

Front cover of the Photos and Phantasms exhibition catalogue (author copy).


In the summer of 1995, Dr Jo Norcup worked as a “keen volunteer” cataloguing over 1000 glass-plate negatives that had not been seen since the first decade of the 20th century.  Many had never been reproduced.  The photos - from the archive of the estate of Sir Harry Hamilton Johnston, colonial administrator, anthropologist, geographer and explorer - echoed his colonial career taken from the 1880s and included his final photographic exploration (1908 - 1909) to the American South, Central America and across the Caribbean at the behest of then outgoing US President Theodore Roosevelt. off the 1000 negatives donated, approximately 300 connect with Johnston's trip across the Caribbean island nations, and it was the history of these photographs, why the differed so much from his earlier photography from his African postings (Uganda, Congo, Liberia) that proved of specific note.

70 of over 300 photos from his travels around the Caribbean between 1908 and 1909 were curated in a 1998 joint endeavour between the Visual Art Department of the British Council  nd the Picture Library staff of the Royal Geographical Society to create, under the vision and curatorial eye of Dr Petrine Archer-Straw the touring photographic exhibition: Photos and Phantasms: Harry Johnston’s photographs of the Caribbean. The exhibition was launched in London at the RGS before it travelled to five of the Caribbean nations Johnston visited ninety years before: Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, Cuba and Haiti.

Despite garnering international acclaim, positive coverage in news reports in the UK and across the Caribbean and North America, as well as the increasing use of Johnston's Caribbean photography in publications, art works and exhibitions since 1998, little has been written about this specific anticipatory repatriation project (sets of the 70 prints were given to each Caribbean national island collection it toured).

This research begins to recover the story of creating and touring the exhibition, and asks pertinent questions regarding personnel and institutional structures surrounding the processes of erasure that occurred in the recent past: what was not done then and why, and how can this serve to inform curators and archive practitioners working in learned societies in the present to ensure sustainable and equitable praxis in the corporeal as well as virtual worlds of archiving, exhibition curation and learned society policies are taken forward into the future.

The initial phase of this research was made possible  from the award of a BA/Leverhulme small grant award (2019) and supported via being afforded an honorary research fellow position in the Centre for Caribbean Studies / Humanities Research Centre at the University of Warwick (2019 - 2023).


This page will contain blog updates and links to publications and activities connected with this work.



November 2019: One-page summary of research published in the University of Warwick's Humanities Research Centre publication, Spectrum (issue no 2, page 7 here)


July 2021: “Locals, Caribbean people loved that exhibition": The life and afterlives of Photos and Phantasms: Harry Johnston’s photographs of the Caribbean (1908 – 1909): Cultural repatriations, and decolonising learned society archives? Paper presented at 21st Society of Caribbean Studies Annual Conference (online / global)