Cracks in the Dome is an engaging study that weaves together colonial history and museum studies to highlight the relationship between museums and imperial policy-making, as well as the inconsistencies inherent in the British government's mission in its territories. In her work, Sarah Longair focuses on the Peace Memorial Museum in Zanzibar, a small museum built to memorialize World War I and serve as an educational center and repository of Zanzibar's cultural heritage. Despite its small size, it held a crucial position in mediating relations between colonial officials and the local populations in Unguja and to a lesser extent Pemba, the two largest islands of the Zanzibar archipelago. Longair discusses both the period leading up to the opening of the museum in 1925, as well as the period from its opening until Zanzibar's independence, thus covering a broad stretch of British colonial rule in Zanzibar, from 1897 to 1964. Longair's work is all the more important for highlighting an institution in East Africa, a region often overlooked in museum studies. Her work thus brings added nuance to the varied practices and policies implemented under colonial rule that were undoubtedly dependent on individual practice, more so than any overarching regional policy.
The chapters of Cracks in the Dome can be considered in three sections. The first two chapters analyze the history of the Peace Memorial Museum prior to its opening in 1925. In chapter 1, Longair investigates early display practices used by British officials and curators to convey information about East Africa. She considers a wide range of displays, including residences such as the home of Alexander Rogers, Regent and First Minister to Zanzibar, and international exhibitions such as the 1905 Zanzibar Exhibition. Chapter 2 considers the building of the Peace Memorial Museum. Longair focuses on the practice of the museum's primary architect, John Sinclair, and his style of “Sinclairian Saracenism,” which blended together elements from British, medieval North African and Spanish, and East African architecture. Longair's approach in these chapters demonstrates the varied attitudes toward Zanzibar in the decades leading up to the museum's foundation. Where Rogers' residential display emphasized British dominion over the local populace, Sinclair's architectural style showed a haphazard engagement with local practice that was much more invested in the idea of “the East” rather than structural necessities—a foolhardy notion that would ultimately result in his design being significantly reworked because of its structural instability.
In chapters 3–5, Longair approaches the first seventeen years of the Peace Memorial Museum's life through three different lenses. She first considers prominent figures at the Museum, namely the first two curators: Alfred Spurrier and Ailsa Nicol Smith. Spurrier's and Nicol Smith's backgrounds were markedly different. Where Spurrier had spent a significant period of time in Zanzibar and was invested in public health initiatives, Nicol Smith was new to the region at the time of her appointment and was valued for her education in museum studies. Chapter 4 focuses on acquisition, cataloging, and display practices. Longair explores the changing meanings of objects and how they can be used to further particular agendas. For instance, in Spurrier's initial installation, the sections of the museum were racially specific—the sections on ethnology and native industries focused on “African” populations while the section on history referred primarily to Omani and British rule, thus validating the colonial mission and visually subjugating the “African” populace. In chapter 5, Longair emphasizes educational outreach from the museum, a project about which both Spurrier and Nicol Smith were particularly passionate. Indeed, their outreach projects made the Peace Memorial Museum unique among early colonial museums because of its educational outlook. Throughout these chapters, Longair gives primacy to the work of individuals such as Spurrier and Nicol Smith in shaping the collections and educational opportunities of the Museum. She thus breaks down the binary of colonizer and colonized by emphasizing how “staff responded to political, economic and social circumstances more often than ideology” (p. 153).
Finally, chapter 6 stands alone in its focus on the period from 1942 to 1964 and beyond. This chapter offers a broad overview of the foundation of the Zanzibar National Archives and the tenures of Sir John Gray, historian and Chief Justice of Zanzibar, and Cecil Thompson, Curator-Archivist of the Peace Memorial Museum and National Archives. Longair emphasizes the increasing financial limitations placed on the museum in the wake of World War II. As a result, displays remained static and public outreach projects all but disappeared. While Gray and Thompson continued to promote the museum's educational mission, many in the government felt that the expense of the Peace Memorial Museum was a luxury rather than a necessity, and this peripheral standing of the museum continued into the postcolonial period.
Throughout her study, Longair emphasizes the importance of individual histories and motivations. She provides clear narratives of the lives and works of John Sinclair, Alfred Spurrier, and Ailsa Nicol Smith among others. This focus on individual activity allows Longair to move away from any notion of a homogeneous colonial government. Instead, the reader is led through all of the successes, difficulties, and failures of each individual, in many ways addressing Frederick Cooper's call to see “the paths not taken, the dead ends of historical processes, the alternatives that appeared to people in their time” (2005: 18). We learn not only about the final architectural product of the Peace Memorial Museum, but also about the disastrous collapse of one of the walls, Sinclair's abrupt resignation prior to the museum's completion, and its reduction in size from two stories to one. This was not a cohesive project from the outset, but subject to varied individual interests and circumstances.
While Longair's inclusion of individual histories grounds her study and emphasizes the complex nature of imperial policy-making, her selection seems at times arbitrary. She commits a full ten pages to the tenure of Ailsa Nicol Smith, yet we learn very little about the background of Sir John Gray, despite his evident importance to the Peace Memorial Museum and the foundation of the National Archives in the 1950s. As a result, her text is heavily weighted to the period from 1925 to 1942, with only twenty-five pages dedicated to the twenty-two years leading up to the Zanzibar Revolution of 1964. Her strength in addressing Spurrier's and Nicol Smith's curatorial terms across three chapters means that we get less in-depth treatment of the later colonial period. We learn little of the growing tensions between British, “Arab,” and “African” populations in Zanzibar, other than brief anecdotal evidence of the removal of a set of slave stocks from the museum displays because they were deemed too inflammatory. This further points to an inherent tension in her treatment of ethnic divides in Zanzibar. Where the fluid boundaries of “African” identities are highlighted by her consistent use of the scare quotes around the term “African,” she treats “Arab” identities as much more rigid by leaving out the scare quotes. However, many individuals claiming an “Arab” identity came from mixed Arab, Circassian, and African heritage; these identities were similarly flexible.
Moreover, Longair's focus is on the lived colonial experience of British officials rather than the “African” or “Arab” populations living in Zanzibar. She admits that her “emphasis has been upon the British community, those whose opinions speak loudest in the archives” (p. 260). We do learn briefly of Nicol Smith's associate, Muhammed Abdulrahman, as well as other museum personnel, and Longair frequently highlights absences in the colonial archive. For instance, she notes the dearth of information about local responses to the completed museum structure. The only evidence that remains are two nicknames given to the museum: Muskiti ya Bwana Sinclair [sic] (“the Mosque of Mr. Sinclair”) and Nyumba ya Mzimu (“the House of Spirits”). The latter name is particularly intriguing in light of Prita Meier's Swahili Port Cities: The Architecture of Elsewhere (2016), in which she discusses local stories about how patrician families sacrificed enslaved individuals and buried them within the foundations of their houses. Perhaps similar stories were associated with Sinclair's “House of Spirits.” Longair's “archives” are almost exclusively written sources preserved by the colonial government. A more thorough analysis of oral histories might shed further light on these archival absences.
Ultimately, this text marks a significant contribution to colonial studies in East Africa. Longair brings together histories of empire, display, and architecture in Zanzibar during the first half of the twentieth century. Her complex study demonstrates how museums can be read as analogies to empire. Staff at the Peace Memorial Museum not only responded to the ever-changing needs of the colonial government, but also shaped educational and public health policies. Furthermore, Longair has paved the way for future studies which might better highlight “African” and “Arab” voices, as well as the different periods of British rule. Thus, Cracks in the Dome presents a unique history of the fractured and precarious place that the Peace Memorial Museum occupied in the early twentieth century, and the power of the colonial museum to read against the archive.