What is ethnography?

By the turn of the twentieth century, Europe and the United States were already deep in their colonial missions, but Western society was only just beginning to feel a need to “understand” the cultures they were coming into contact with. World Fairs were a popular way for Westerners to travel the globe without leaving the comforts of the “civilized” world—they provided the opportunity for Europeans and Americans to learn about faraway lands, see ‘exotic’ cultures and experience things that they never had before.

Postcards were a major part of this—they quickly became associated with travel and worldliness, depicting images of “exotic” people, places, and cultures. The following images are ethnographic postcards; the subjects of which are people, generally non-Western, shown with the intent of displaying foreign cultures to a Western audience. The LMU Collection holds postcards that range from Indigenous America to South Africa to Japan. Because ethnographic postcards almost always pictured people in cultural or traditional clothing and settings without any additional context, regardless of intent, they ultimately allowed the West to justify imperialist attitudes towards these cultures in order to maintain their sense of superiority and capitalize off of their exploitative relationships.