Orwell & Empire

In 2020, the annual Orwell Memorial Lecture was given by Dr Tristram Hunt, Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, with the title Decolonising The Wonder House: Orwell, Empire and the Museum.’ Tristram’s lecture used the work and lives of writers George Orwell and Rudyard Kipling – the anti-imperialist and arch-imperialist – as a way to consider the debate around museums, empire and decolonisation today.

The lecture also included international responses from Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, the director of the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum, and Thant Myint-U, the writer and historian who established the Yangon Heritage Trust.

In response to the lecture, we have developed a set of resources that aim to:

  • Help you to learn more about Orwell’s and Kipling’s complex relationships with Empire
  • Enable you to engage critically with the 2020 Orwell Memorial Lecture and the dialogue surrounding it
  • Support you to develop your own thoughts, questions and responses to the themes within the lecture by encouraging you to:
    • Consider how we deal with historical writers’ relationships to empire today
    • Produce your own critical or creative writing on the subject



There’s a lot to detangle and a lot of contested ground when it comes to discussion of history, empire and museums. However, it’s useful to have a sense of the terms that are used regularly in this discussion. It’s also crucial to understand that defining terms is difficult in itself and that these terms are contested; people are constantly reconsidering what they mean, frequently influenced by their own perspectives, interests and viewpoints.

The definitions that are included here are intentionally simple, but you might find it useful to think about what you might also add to or challenge within these definitions as you read and learn more.


Empire is a term used to describe a group of territories ruled by one single ruler or state. Empires are built by countries that wish to control lands outside of their borders. Those lands can be close by or even thousands of miles away.

Source: National Geographic


The group of countries that in the past were ruled or controlled by the U.K., including Australia, Canada, India, and many parts of Africa. Source: Cambridge Dictionary.

You can find out more about the British Empire through time via BBC Bitesize here.


When discussing Empire in relation to Orwell and Kipling we are referring specifically to their experiences within the British Raj. This is the British Colonial rule in India from 1858-1947 prior to independence and formation of independent nations India and Pakistan.

Find more information on the British Raj in India, via BBC History Resource – ‘From Empire to Independence: The British Raj 1858-1947. By Dr Chandrika Kaul.


Colonialism is the policy of a country seeking to extend or retain its authority over other people or territories, generally with the aim of economic dominance.

Source: Walter Rodney (2018)


Decolonisation itself refers to the undoing of colonial rule over subordinate countries but has taken on a wider meaning as the ‘freeing of minds from colonial ideology’, in particular by addressing the ingrained idea that to be colonised was to be inferior. Decolonisation then offers a powerful metaphor for those wanting to critique positions of power and dominant culture.

Source: Warwick University Education Studies


Focusing on European culture or history to the exclusion of a wider view of the world; implicitly regarding European culture as pre-eminent. Source: Oxford English Dictionary