As I researched my first book, I noticed that artifact collections were a rich site in which scholars, courtiers and merchants compared distant peoples. My second project, Collecting Artifacts in the Age of Empire: Spaces of Disruption, investigates European responses to indigenous artifacts, which I examine through cabinets of curiosities and early museums such as the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (Paris) and the Royal Society (London).
European notions identity and of citizenship – national, European and global – have long been entangled with views about outsiders. Collecting Artifacts in the Age of Empire analyzes travel and geographical literature, inventories, artifacts and institutional archives from the sixteenth to the early eighteenth centuries in order to reconsider what the lives of objects can tell us about empires. Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, Europeans moved from admiring the technological achievements of others to seeing their own technology as a sign that they were superior to their imperial subjects. This book argues that new notions of indigeneity, modernity and citizenship were constructed together in response to overseas artifacts, particularly those from the Americas.
I place history of science, ethnohistory and the cultural history of scholarship in a productive tension in order to analyze the ways in which travelers, collectors and scholars described, classified and organized exotic objects in cabinets of curiosities and early museums, and how observers attempted to distinguish these artifacts from the relics of Europe’s own classical and prehistoric past. Collecting Artifacts in the Age of Empire inserts the evidence of visual and material culture into the history of scholarship (particularly the histories of anthropology, archeology and history). By analyzing the interconnections between collecting and knowledge-making, it places questions of materiality at the heart of the entangled histories of Europe, the Americas and the wider world.
This book argues that the idea of Europe at the height of its imperial expansiveness required the invention of groups without the capacity to shape nature; indigeneity, creole identity and European citizenship were constructed together. Today, indigenous rights groups and environmentalists challenge the assumption that technology defines modernity and that it improves quality of life and indicates “progress”. This book helps to explain how this paradigm emerged and why it came to underpin the imperial project. To trace the lives of overseas objects as they colonized cabinets of curiosities and early museums is to grapple with larger questions about indigenous agency, aesthetics, forms of nationhood, and the origins of museums.
For scholars of cultural encounters, this book contributes the story of European responses to exotic material culture, beginning in a period in which Europeans routinely admired the technology of others and tracking the gradual demise of the view that peoples outside Europe were capable of shaping the world in ways that were conducive to ‘civilized’ life. For historians of science and material culture and for art historians, the project illuminates the constitutive link between objects, collecting culture and ethnography. For literary scholars, it underscores the value of turning the literary lens to all manner of texts and artifacts by analyzing inventories and catalogs in terms of their genre, structure, rhetoric and visual layout as well as their content, in order to get at the experience of analyzing objects through the act of writing. By examining the ways in which objects were described and classified in cabinets of curiosities, learned societies and early museums, the book also integrates the histories of anthropology and archeology into broader narratives about empire and nation-building.