Part One: Primitive Accumulation




Chapter Four


Curiosity Cabinets, World's Fairs, and Ethnographic Museums








The material culture of indigenous peoples lies at the center of the three situations of first contact with Europeans that we have discussed so far in this book: the Spanish in the New World, the Portuguese in Africa, and the English in the South Pacific. It occupies that central position for two reasons. First, the creations of native peoples were often coveted by Europeans as forms of wealth. This is most clearly true in the case of Central and South America, but to some extent it holds for Africa and Oceania as well. Second, many indigenous objects expressed the beliefs and were integral to the practices of the cultures that produced them. Insofar as they supported autonomous forms of life, they were obstacles to conquest, colonization, and the exploitation of labor. The destruction of Aztec art, Kongo minkisi, and Hawaiian temples and their gods are three examples of the cultural holocaust that was required to subjugate the native world.


As expressions of communal freedom and potential rallying points of resistance, indigenous objects, especially those with religious significance, were dangerous to the Europeans who were carried to the four corners of the earth by the expansion of the capitalist system. But the danger was fully active only in the places where the objects originated. Once they were uprooted from their native soil and transplanted in the West, they lost contact with the source of their menacing power. Thus drained of their original energy, they could be subjected to a new set of cultural practices. Many of the objects brought back to Europe were incorporated into private and public collections where they were catalogued, studied, and placed on display. In this fashion, they assisted at the birth of such characteristically European institutions as the curiosity cabinet, the ethnographic museum, and the world's fair.





The primitive accumulation of capital that lay at the origins of the modern world system in the sixteenth century involved the transference of material resources from Africa and the Americas to Europe. Among those resources were objects that are now exhibited in museums and sold to collectors as works of indigenous art. The objects reached their destination at a time when it was undergoing a complicated process of cultural transformation. Much of Europe was fully in the grip of the Renaissance. Though that movement was based on a rediscovery of Greek and Roman sources of learning and models of visual representation, it was not merely backward looking. It also clothed art with a grandeur that had no precedent in either ancient or mediaeval times. Sculptors and painters made a successful claim to a social status more elevated than that of ordinary craftsmen. They shed their traditional association with crude manual labor and insisted that their activities and products were equivalent in excellence to those of the more highly regarded human studies, or “humanities,” such as grammar, history, poetry, and philosophy. This bid for respectability on the part of visual artists was accepted by a layer of the mercantile and financial bourgeoisie who at first commissioned artworks for churches and public buildings as well as private quarters, and then began to purchase already existing works in the marketplace. And so art was converted into wealth at the very moment of its birth.


It took more than four centuries for the creations of indigenous peoples to be absorbed into the art market, but they too were viewed right from the beginning as bearers of exchange value, embodiments of potential wealth. Only in their case, that perception often led to the physical destruction of their aesthetic form. Nearly everything made of gold or silver or encrusted with precious gems was stored temporarily in the treasure houses of princes, bankers, and merchants on its way to being dismantled or melted down. In a domestic repetition of the way the conquistadors had treated Aztec artifacts abroad, the detached gems were sold and the gold and silver converted directly into bullion. Fortunately some objects escaped significant alteration because the materials from which they were made were worth little if anything at all. If they were not shaped from precious metals or composed of jewels, then the items were often left intact and sold to collectors of curiosities.


The passion for collecting was also an innovation of the Renaissance. It is of course true that people have collected in other cultures and in Europe in earlier historical periods. But their efforts always served some well defined ulterior social purpose such as consolidating status or broadening kinship alliances through the exchange of dowries and bride price. The Renaissance is innovative in that collecting emerged as a relatively autonomous practice, one that may have brought prestige, to be sure, but only because of its ability to make a plausibly disinterested contribution to the store of knowledge. In particular, the earliest collections were informed by the same thrill of rediscovering antiquity that powered the Renaissance as a whole. They were comprised of statues and architectural fragments uncovered through the excavations of Roman ruins that were conducted from 1450 to 1550. From this classical starting point, collections soon proliferated in bewildering diversity. Some enthusiasts concentrated on coins and medals, others on books and manuscripts, and still others on zoological and botanical specimens. There were collections of fossils, sea shells, mathematical instruments, minerals, playing cards, anatomical oddities, cryptograms, watches, and automata. By the early years of the seventeenth century, catalogues were being published and fashionable trips abroad arranged for the sole purpose of journeying from one collection to another.[1]


Most of the collections were housed in the curiosity cabinets that had made their first appearance in the sixteenth century. The Italian term is studiolo, the French, cabinet de curiosites, and the German, Wunderkammer, chamber of wonders. The German word, which is the most expressive of all, indicates something of the aura of mystery that enveloped the cabinets and their contents, at least at the time of the Renaissance. The cabinets as physical containers ─ the term also referred to the collections they housed ─ sometimes took the form of spacious closets or even entire rooms. But they most often appeared as free standing cupboards masterfully constructed from fine woods. In the most sumptuous examples, they were made of ebony, inlaid with jasper and lapis lazuli, draped with canopies studded with jewels, and decorated with alabaster columns.[2]  But whether princely or modest, the cupboards were elaborately sectioned into shelves, drawers, partitions, niches, and other receptacles. Since many of the compartments had to be opened in order to reveal what was inside, they imbued their normally hidden contents with a sense of mystery.


However the suggestion of something enigmatic was not a result of the compartments alone. The contents themselves were often inherently mysterious since many of them were valued for their mythical associations or supposed occult properties. A room sized cabinet in London, Tradescant's Ark, included the hand of a mermaid as well as the body of a dragon among its more pedestrian zoological specimens. Throughout Europe, the exceedingly rare horn of the unicorn (which was usually, in fact, from a narwhal) was the most highly prized of all of the cabinets' denizens, not only because of its symbolic association with the virgin birth of Christ, but also because of its power to sweat in the presence of poisons and to transmute the harmful substances into innocuous ones. The fossilized teeth of sharks were somewhat more common, but they too were included for their ability to protect against harm by detecting nearby poisons. Some cabinets contained gems that had been exquisitely carved, and had the power to banish melancholy, cure illnesses, or win the attention of a prospective lover. Even more astonishingly, there were collections that included objects capable of tapping forces located on the very pinnacle of the scale of Being. One of the Hapsburgs owned a cabinet that contained intricately faceted crystals in which he saw, not any ordinary magic, but a reflection of the ineffable power of God Himself.[3]


The African and Amerindian objects that found their way into the curiosity cabinets certainly contributed to this general atmosphere of the marvelous. A greenstone Aztec mask could be found in the studiolo of the Medici family. Its owners had local craftsmen provide it with a mount of worked gold that lent it something of the appearance of an Italian carnival mask, itself a remnant from a long lost pagan culture. Along with Augustus, Duke of Saxonia, and other aristocrats, the Medici were also avid collectors of the objects now known as Afro-Portuguese ivories. Though these condiment sets, spoons, and hunting horns commissioned from Benin and Sherbro carvers often depict knights, Portuguese coats of arms, and Christian themes, their style and some of their iconographic elements are nonetheless unmistakably African. As a result, very unusual symbolic fusions can occur. For example, an ivory salt cellar acquired by the Royal Kunstkammer in Copenhagen includes a relief of a mermaid surmounted by a crucifix. The cross holds aloft, not the body of the Savior, but that of a giant lizard. The lid of the cellar is decorated with human figures dressed in African clothing, and the top of the lid is draped with a languorous snake whose head droops down in ambiguous suspension over the head of one of the Africans. In the late sixteenth century, the Holy Inquisition attempted to discourage European purchase of such indigenous objects, which the inquisitors, of course, believed to be inhabited by demons.[4] But their efforts were largely ineffective. Collectors not only continued to acquire items of daily use such as Indian moccasins and African powder boxes. In many parts of Europe, they also maintained an interest in the most blatant of “fetishes.” The cabinets of French merchants and aristocrats continued to include “strange idols from Africa,”[5] and the Elector of Bavaria owned a wooden fetish from Florida.[6] Even the devout Antonio Giganti, secretary to the Archbishop of Bologna, owned an important studiolo in which many idols from the New World were prominently exhibited.[7]


The collectors' persistence in acquiring indigenous objects over the objections of the Inquisition was in part a result of the Renaissance revival of interest in magic. Marcilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Giordano Bruno, and their followers opposed the traditional Catholic suspicion of the occult arts. They argued that the recent rediscovery of texts by Plotinus, Porphyry, and the fabled Hermes Tristmegistus permitted the development of a morally unassailable form of white magic, in other words, one that avoided all concourse with demons. The Hermetic books in particular included descriptions of the procedures Egyptian priests supposedly used to direct the energies of the stars into statues and other talismans. Ficino and the others did not hesitate to recommend duplication of these methods. But they insisted that the powers called up in the process hailed, not from astral demons, as more orthodox Christians believed, but rather from the world soul. This elder sister of our own souls that keeps the heavens in motion, and that makes the entire universe one living and thinking being, was first discussed in Plato's cosmological dialogue, the Timaeus, and received further theoretical elaboration from Plotinus and the other Neoplatonists. It was somewhat resistant to theological attack since its existence had been accepted by some of the early Church fathers who were also under the influence of the Platonic and Neoplatonic texts. As we pointed out in a previous chapter, the Renaissance talismans that were created to contain and direct the energies of the world soul by way of stellar and planetary conduits were similar to the indigenous objects called fetishes by traditional Catholics. Both attempted to cure illnesses and bring good fortune by capturing spiritual forces in material containers often impressed with some kind of imagery. Due to this functional resemblance, African and Amerindian masks and statues were easily assimilated to the model of the Renaissance talismans when they entered curiosity cabinets. The assimilation, however, was ambivalent. Their identification as magical instruments reserved an important place for indigenous objects in more than one collection. But since most native masks, statues, paintings, and so on deviated sharply from the canons of Renaissance naturalism, collectors often found them unsurpassingly ugly. Because they were judged to have a grotesque appearance, they never fully shed their propensity to evoke the demonic.


There is an interesting reflection of this ambivalence in Shakespeare's Tempest, though there it is played out, not in the realm of material culture, but in the relationship between the Renaissance magus, Prospero, and his slave Caliban, the island savage. Writing in the late sixteenth century, Shakespeare has behind him a century of reports that had filtered into Europe concerning the conquest of the New World. And though the island in his play has an imprecise fictional location, it evokes the Antilles, where Columbus first set foot on solid ground. This suggestion is especially clear in the name Caliban, an anagram for “cannibal,” which is itself a distortion of the word the Carib Indians used to refer to themselves. In any event, the European conqueror of the island is not merely a colonialist; he is also a neoplatonic conjurer of spirits. Because of his interest in the magical arts, he finds more to be of use in the indigenous world than servile labor, and this is the cause of an inner conflict. On the one hand, Prospero loses no opportunity to abuse the misshapen Caliban, whose monstrous body is the result of the union of a witch with the devil. On the other hand, the most powerful instrument of Prospero's magic is the spirit, Ariel, who originally did the bidding of Caliban's mother. In Shakespeare's play as in curiosity cabinets, the white magician ─ in both senses of the term ─ is both fascinated with and horrified by the spirits of subjugated natives.


Shakespeare may well have modeled Prospero on his contemporary, John Dee, the renowned scholar and ambassador of the Elizabethan court. On the basis of a study of Hermetic and Kabbalistic texts, Dee invented a method for summoning angels by manipulating numbers and letters that had an esoteric significance. In this way, he claimed the ability to bring angels to visible appearance and harness their powers for such purposes as foretelling the future. His magical equipment consisted primarily in wax seals and written tables composed from a secret “Enochian” alphabet, but it also included an obsidian mirror from pre-Columbian Mexico.[8] Throughout Mesoamerica, these polished mirrors of black volcanic glass were used by indigenous magicians for divinatory scrying. Tezcatlipoca, the Aztec patron god of sorcerers, is often depicted in painted books wearing an obsidian mirror in place of the foot that he lost to the earth monster during a battle at the creation of the world. Whether or not Dee had access to such specific ethnographic information, he recognized the magical significance of the black mirror in his own possession. Yet in spite of his use of the device from pagan Mexico as well as other questionable practices, he insisted, like all Renaissance magicians, that his work was morally and theologically blameless. But that insistence did not prevent him from being charged with black magic before the Privy Council, nor his library from being destroyed by an enraged crowd.


Apart from the specific, if ambivalent, affinity between European talismans and indigenous fetishes, there is a more general connection between curiosity cabinets and the magical revival. The overall division of curiosities into artificialia and naturalia follows the Hermetic distinction between the human being as microcosm and the natural world as macrocosm.[9] The person is a diminutive universe, and the universe a giant organism. And just as microcosm and macrocosm mirror one another, so do the products that belong to each of the domains: artificial and natural curiosities respectively. The Renaissance magician manipulated sympathies and correspondences between the two spheres of existence by pronouncing incantations ─ human artifacts of a sort ─ in an attempt to control natural events, or by trying to alter a client's emotional condition by surrounding her with the appropriate plants, gems, and animals, for example. In much the same way, owners of some of the more comprehensive curiosity cabinets sought to demonstrate sympathies and correspondences between artifacts and natural specimens by interspersing items from each of the two categories and arranging them in an overall pattern. Only the pattern varied from owner to owner. It therefore depended upon individual powers of sensitivity and discernment rather than the imposition of any kind of rigidly objective order.


Still, there may have been a single prototype that guided these varied efforts at arrangement. At its origins, the curiosity cabinet seems to have been inspired by the memory theater of Giulio Camillo.[10] The art of memory has a long history in the West extending back at least as far as Cicero. It involves the visualization of an architectural space in which images are placed in the various rooms and compartments. The images are keyed to the material to be memorized, usually the passages of an oration. By imaginatively traversing the architectural space in a predetermined order, the orator is able to read off the elements of an address from the images encountered in the process. In the early sixteenth century, Camillo adapted the art of memory to the purposes of the magical revival. He secured a small stipend from the King of France that enabled him to construct a wooden theater. The theater rose in seven steps or grades arranged in semicircles, each of which was identified with one of the phases in the process of creation.[11] The rising grades themselves were divided by seven gangways representing the seven planets, seven archangels, and seven attributes of God. At each of the forty nine intersections of grades with gangways, a gate decorated with numerous images was located. Finally, there were boxes at the foot of each gate containing excerpts from the speeches of Cicero. The spectator stood at the base of the seven rising grades, where the stage would have been in an ordinary theater. From this vantage point, he was able to contemplate the whole panorama of gates with their associated images and boxes. The mnemonic material was keyed primarily to the images, most of which were drawn from classical mythology: Cerberus, the Gorgon Sisters, Pasiphe and the Bull, and so on. The images in turn were symbols for the varied manifestations of planetary forces on the different levels of creation. The details of this scheme are very complex and need not concern us here. The important thing is its purpose, which Frances Yates has identified as the development of a magical memory. According to her, the images were actually “inner talismans” that were supposed to collect celestial influences and focus them in the human mind.[12] To begin with, they were to endow the adept with the ability to discourse on any topic with the eloquence of Cicero himself. But even more importantly, they were to allow him a comprehensive survey and unitary grasp of the entire contents of the universe, an all encompassing representation of the world.


The project of the memory theater, then, was to transcend the finite standpoint of ordinary conscious awareness and to achieve a view of the world so universal in scope and perspicuous in detail that it could only be identified with the mind of God. The project was inspired by the Gnostic and Hermetic doctrine that the human being is actually a fallen spark of Divinity, temporarily trapped by its own obdurate body and by the darkness of matter in general. The point of the magical art of memory is to return the lost soul to a consciousness of its true status and origin, a purpose that Pico della Mirandola articulated in exoteric form in his famous and influential, Oration on the Dignity of Man. There is no doubt that this purpose was heretical from a conventionally Catholic point of view. But such heresy was called for by dramatically changing times. It was made necessary, not so much by the rediscovery of the Hermetic texts, as by the challenges that the Age of Exploration posed to the Western mind. In the sixteenth century, the standard European representation of the world was undergoing a fundamental transformation as a result of the discovery of the Americas and the ongoing penetration of Africa. A belief in the demiurgic powers of the human imagination was undoubtedly necessary for the confidence required to generate an entirely new world picture.


Some curiosity cabinets were devoted to specialized collections, but others included objects intended to represent all elements of reality. There is considerable evidence that the encyclopedic collections were influenced by the magical art of memory. To take just one example, in 1562 Samuel Quiccheberg published a treatise in Munich presenting his advice to the Bavarian Duke, Albrecht V, on establishing an all embracing cabinet. In developing his guidelines for classification and arrangement, he refers to Camillo's theater and designates the curiosity cabinet a Theatrum Sapientiae.[13] As memory theaters in miniature, the encyclopedic cabinets were especially well suited to developing a new representation of the world in the wake of the voyages of discovery. Curiosities nestled in their cubbyholes like the symbols on the gates of Camillo's theater. But the curiosities, unlike the symbols, were potentially dynamic. They could be bought, sold, traded, and, most important of all, rearranged. By acquiring new items from missionaries and explorers, collectors had the power to conjure up in their cabinets a changing image of an expanding world.





Natural curiosities were indispensable to encyclopedic collections. After all, they represented the organic and inorganic entities that comprise so much of the bulk of the world. But since they occupied positions on the scale of Being inferior to the human domain, collectors valued them less highly than artificial curiosities. This assessment was reversed when natural history collections came into vogue in the eighteenth century, but not because humankind was suddenly deemed unimportant. On the contrary, the new crop of collectors saw detailed knowledge of the natural world as the only reasonable path to the fulfillment of human desires and purposes. The triumph of natural history collecting in the 1700s was part and parcel of the Enlightenment view that human goals are best served by science, not metaphysical speculation. Still, the seeds of that triumph had been planted two hundred years earlier, in the heyday of the Renaissance.


Although Camillo's theater undoubtedly had an impact on Renaissance collecting, it is important not to overestimate its influence. The theater may have shaped the encyclopedic cabinets, but it had much less to do with the specialized ones. In particular, some early collectors of natural curiosities did not share Samuel Quiccheberg's enthusiasm for the magical art of memory. In the late sixteenth century, the prominent Bolognese collector Ulisse Aldrovandi, stated that he found books on the art of memory useless, and in fact opposed any attempt to organize collections through the imposition of some abstractly universal scheme.[14] Aldrovandi, who was a professor of natural philosophy at the University of Bologna and director of its botanic garden, exhorted doctors and medical students to apply themselves to the study of plants, animals, and minerals in order to determine their specific therapeutic properties. The studies were to be conducted on the specimens themselves and for achievable practical ends. Aldrovandi regarded his extensive private collection of naturalia as an instrument of empirical inquiry. True, he never interpreted such research as a passive encounter with some unvarnished sense datum. He accepted the natural history of both Aristotle and Pliny, and so was far from being an empiricist in the eighteenth century, British sense. Nevertheless, from these ancient authors, he learned the importance of such empirical methods as dissecting dead specimens and carefully observing the behavior of living ones. For Aldrovandi, the magical claim to comprehend the sympathies and correspondences of the universe as a whole faded into epistemic emptiness when confronted with a painstaking and piecemeal approach to research. For him, the purpose of the curiosity cabinet was not to elevate the human mind to the forgotten heights of its original divinity. Far more modestly, it was to make the widest possible range of samples from the natural world available for expert examination and classification.


The most highly prized items in Aldrovandi's collection were unusual specimens from Africa, the Americas, and parts of Asia. To some extent, this taste for the exotic was a proclivity he had in common with collectors influenced by occultism. But in his case, and that of many other connoisseurs of naturalia, a predilection for the foreign and even the bizarre pointed more toward the science of the future than the magic of the present and past. The great voyages of discovery profoundly altered European conceptions of biological diversity. Estimates of the number of species existing world wide were soon multiplied by factors of ten, one hundred, one thousand. The burgeoning variety of living forms, directly evident in the expanding contents of the new natural history cabinets, soon began to strain the limits of Aristotelian and other existing systems of biological classification. The result was a considerable degree of intellectual confusion, a state of affairs that persisted until the middle of the eighteenth century. The theoretical chaos ended when Linnaeus developed his taxonomic methods,[15]  in large part on the basis of the natural history collections that Aldrovandi and others had pioneered.


The development of Linnaean taxonomy marked the definitive victory of Aldrovandi's version of the curiosity cabinet over that of Quiccheberg and his fellow Hermeticists. It provided a systematic, yet empirically rich, schema for categorizing the organic constituents of nature. Moreover,  it made its appearance at a time when there was increasing interest in the economic potential of the “natural resources” located both at home and abroad. For the global capitalist system was in the midst of its second great expansion. As the struggle for hegemony between England and France, as well as their weaker competitors, brought large parts of Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Oceania into one international division of labor, the forces of agricultural production and extractive enterprise developed rapidly on a world scale. Resource inventories were complied by both public bodies and private individuals[16] as a prerequisite for such development, and here Linnaean taxonomy proved to be extraordinarily useful. As part of the inventory process, increasing numbers of collectors all over Europe began to cultivate cabinets devoted predominantly, or even exclusively, to plants, minerals, fossils, shells, and zoological specimens, all arranged according to Linnaean standards. To take one example, the natural history collections that existed in Venice before 1750 could be counted on the fingers of one hand. By the final decades of the century, their number had grown to more than sixty.[17]


 Most ethnographic objects harvested during this period wound up as adjuncts to natural history collections, where many of them indeed remain to the present day. There are several reasons for this. To begin with, indigenous artifacts were often acquired on the same expeditions that gathered natural history specimens. The two arrived in Europe in the identical shipments and came onto the market at the same time. Cook's voyages are an example. But secondly, there was something of a survival of the encyclopedic approach to collecting when it came to recently discovered or newly conquered regions of the world. What better way was there to convey a unified image of exotic places than by displaying their artificialia and naturalia alongside one another? Finally, the Enlightenment conception of the savage as “natural man” led eighteenth century collectors to group native artifacts with flora and fauna, even though, as we have seen in a previous chapter, they lacked any guiding schema that could function as an anthropological equivalent of Linnaean taxonomy.


When scientific anthropology finally emerged in the nineteenth century, its first home was, not the university department, but the natural history museum. As late as 1900, an anthropologist of such unchallenged stature as Franz Boas still found his professional employment at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. But it was not long before ethnographic collections developed outside the institutions that had initially harbored them. In the process, a new kind of museum appeared.





By the early years of the nineteenth century, England had won its struggle with France, emerging as the world's dominant military and economic power.  In the process, it underwent an industrial revolution that set the tone for the further development of the global system. The era of a predominantly agricultural capitalism was over. In the ensuing decades, industrial production came to account for an ever larger share of the world market. The nations that sought to challenge British hegemony did so by speeding up their own processes of industrial growth. The accelerated mechanization of production required them to secure access to vast quantities of raw materials, which eventually led to a new period of expansion into the non-European regions of the world. By the late nineteenth century, the scramble for colonies was on, an international melee that ended on the battlefields of the First and Second World Wars. This age of classical imperialism was the context in which ethnographic collections and museums arose.


England's early advantage in ethnographic museums is a reflection of its dominance as an imperial power. The sun never sets on the British Museum. That august institution was created by an act of Parliament in 1753 in response to a bequest by the wealthy physician, Sir Hans Sloan.[18] Sloan had acquired an interest in natural history when still a boy, a hobby he was able to pursue in the field when he became personal physician to the Duke of Albemarle who had been appointed Governor of Jamaica. While living on the Caribbean island, Sloan collected 800 species of plants and other specimens, which served as the nucleus of his future holdings. When he returned to England, his lucrative practice among the aristocracy allowed him to amass an extensive collection that eventually amounted to some 80,000 objects. Its basis consisted of natural history specimens, though the collection also included thousands of coins and medals, and thousands more of books, prints, and manuscripts. At the time of his bequest, Sloan also owned 1,125 “antiquities,” under which category he included 351 ethnographic items, in addition to ancient Greek and Roman artifacts. Some of the ethnographic objects can still be identified in the Museum's current holdings. Among them are Peruvian pottery, Eskimo snowspectacles, a moose antler comb and a bird bone spoon from New England, thirty birchbark baskets from Hudson's Bay, and an unusual, beautifully woven basket from South Carolina, probably Cherokee. There is also a small wooden drum that Sloan believed to be of American Indian origin, but that was actually brought to Virginia from Africa, or made there by a seventeenth century African slave.[19]


Cook's explorations added thousands of Oceanic objects to the largely American ethnographic “antiquities” of Sloan's bequest. The botanist Carl Daniel Solander, who accompanied Cook on his first voyage, was actually a member of the Museum's staff at the time. Moreover, Joseph Banks, who led the scientific team that included Solander, later became a Trustee. Through the efforts of the two men, the British Museum was able to acquire most of the artifacts collected on all three of the voyages.


The Museum's ethnographic holdings continued to expand over the following decades. But it was not until 1883, when an extensive bequest of indigenous objects by Henry Christy was moved into the main building in Bloomsbury that the ethnographic collection crystallized as a relatively autonomous subdivision within the Department of British and Mediaeval Antiquities and Ethnography. A period of rapid growth followed that organizational development. In particular, the ethnographic division added mightily to its treasures when the Royal Navy seized a vast quantity of bronze castings and ivory carvings as “reparations” from one of the most sophisticated urban cultures of Africa. The objects were taken in the course of the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897, which ransacked the magnificent palace of the Oba in retaliation for the earlier killing of a British expeditionary party.


There was never any intention on the part of Museum officials to hide or deny the connection between the ethnographic division and England's imperial adventures. In the second paragraph of the Museum's Handbook to the Ethnographical Collections, published in 1910, the Keeper of the collections, Charles H. Read wrote:


Many of the older specimens in the gallery have a connection with British enterprise and exploration which adds considerably to their interest: thus, the voyages of Cook, Vancouver, and others, including the explorers who took part in the search for Franklin, are represented in the Museum; and the magnificent collection of the London Missionary Society, now shown in the Pacific Section, illustrates another phase of British enterprise among uncivilized peoples, in which we may take legitimate pride.[20]


For most of its history, curators and trustees of the British Museum held indigenous objects in open disdain. When that attitude finally passed, it was as much due to the activity of the Luftwaffe as to the recognition of ethnography as a respectable discipline. The evacuation of the Museum's treasures from their home in Bloomsbury began in 1939, and none too soon. Two years later, the building was badly damaged in incendiary bombing by German airplanes. When the collections were reinstalled in the postwar years, some were also reorganized. Only then, in 1946, did ethnography became a fully independent department. In 1970, the ethnographic collection finally moved to a separate building in Burlington Gardens off Piccadilly, where it was renamed the Museum of Mankind.


By the third quarter of the nineteenth century, most of the large cities of Germany, notably Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, and Hamburg, had ethnographic collections of exceptional character on display. But, in an inversion of the British paradigm, the comprehensiveness of the collections and the fine quality of many of their objects were the result of Germany's belated entry into the competitive imperial melee, itself a function of the dilatory character of German national unification. Germany first became a unified nation in 1871. The Iron Chancellor Bismarck committed the new Reich to an aggressive policy of colonial expansion in 1884. But only two years later, when it opened to the public, the Berlin Museum für Völkerkunde already housed nearly ten thousand African objects alone. German travelers had acquired most of the items on trips to Sudan, Abyssinia, and the Guinea Coast.[21] Thus the objects were not themselves the result of conquest, but drafts on a hoped for imperial future. All of the German ethnographic collections were marked by such overcompensation deriving from a burning envy of England and other advanced imperial rivals. Moreover, that compensatory complex did not dissolve even with the onset of actual colonial conquest. In 1910-11, for example, when the Reich was already well along in its colonizing mission, the city of Hamburg sent an expedition to the western Pacific, which brought back 6,667 objects for its ethnographic collection, including some from the fabled and relatively inaccessible interior of New Guinea. The buildings that housed the Hamburg as well as Berlin collections were jammed with so many objects that they seemed ready to burst at the seams. Ethnographers were unable effectively to study, let alone comprehend, the wealth of material at their disposal.[22]


tour eiffelThe ethnographic collections of France developed differently than the English and German ones. They emerged from a series of universal expositions, or world fairs, in which France celebrated the advent of its own industrial phase by displaying, alongside other nations, its mass produced merchandise and scientific and technological achievements, as well as by demonstrating its ability to entertain a massified, urban public on a truly enormous scale. Fifteen million visitors attended the exposition of 1867 alone. In the expositions, the French bourgeoisie turned its back on an older, traditional world of established habits and long term intimacies so as to embrace a dizzying acceleration in the tempo of change, an unprecedented increase in technological power, and the chaotic stimuli of the newly industrialized urban life. The commonly recognized symbol of that momentous shift was the Eiffel Tower. An astonishing achievement of modern engineering that lacked the old world charm of ornamentation, it was built for the exposition of 1889, and remained the tallest building in the world for the next half century, a monument to the age of industrial capitalism. It is true that the first universal exposition was held not in Paris, but in London in 1851. The British fair is still famous for its Crystal Palace, which transformed the new building materials, iron and glass, into a diaphanous, faceted palace. But France turned the British precedent into a vehicle especially suited to its flair for dramatic self display. In the vast scale of the French expositions, with their accumulation of crowds, elaborate buildings, and glittering merchandise, Paris affirmed itself as both a center of science and industry and, in the words of Walter Benjamin, as “the capital of luxury and fashion.”[23]


A basic aspect of that affirmation of industrial power and material luxury was the idea of a French imperial mission. All of the Paris expositions included artifacts from the colonies devoted to promoting the idea, but three of the fairs had particularly significant implications for the future. The first exposition of 1855 preceded by about fifteen years the development of an aggressive colonial policy by the national government, but it nevertheless presciently left in its wake a MusÀ)_Àe Permanent des Colonies. The designers of the exposition of 1878 created an additional venue for displaying the signs of imperial domination to the enormous crowds: they established the famous museum that was to nourish more than one generation of French artists by installing artifacts from Africa and the Americas in the right wing of the newly constructed Palais du TrocadÀ)_Àro. Finally, the exposition of 1889 was the most extravagant of all in its dedication to the cause of French imperial expansion, but also the most arresting in its depiction of radically foreign cultures. The bourgeoisie celebrated the centenary of the French Revolution by creating a Palais des Colonies that offered visitors full reconstructions of Tahitian and New Caledonian villages, as well as less elaborate demonstrations of the life and culture of such French possessions as Madagascar, Martinique, and Tonkin (now Vietnam), the last of which had recently been annexed from China as the result of a bloody war. Moreover, the reconstructed villages were populated with real representatives of the colonial subject populations. The hapless natives had been imported to entertain the exposition's visitors with songs, dances, and ritual masquerades. They were then supposed to return to their homes, as the journalist E. Monad wrote approvingly at the time, with “the impression that France is a rich and powerful country, whose moral superiority they recognize and whose authority they will be less and less tempted to contest.”[24]


Among the millions of visitors to the Palais des Colonies, two in particular are worthy of note. The impressionist painter, Camille Pissarro (then actually in his post-impressionist phase) was unable to resist attending, though he was repelled by the pavilion's blatant imperialist arrogance. Pissarro's friend and former student, Paul Gaugin also visited. It was there that he resolved to leave France for Tahiti.[25] The TrocadÀ)_Àro and the Palais des Colonies were a homage to the nation's imperial destiny. But they were built just in time for the avant-garde to arrive.


A few decades before these aesthetic innovators attended the French exposition, a German émigré in his thirties took out a library card at the British Museum. As ethnographic objects were piling up in the Department of Antiquities, he began work on a multivolume analysis of the capitalist mode of production. One of its most important sections is titled, “On the Fetish Character of Commodities and Its Secret.”


[1] Hodgen, Margaret T.; Early Anthropology in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964) p. 118

[2] Hodgen, Early Anthro., p. 121

[3] Van Holst, N. Creators, Collectors, and Connoisseurs: The Anatomy of Artistic Taste from Antiquity to the Present Day. London: Thames and Hudson, 1967. p. 104 

[4] Feest, p. 86

[5] From Africa, p. 125

[6] Feest, From North America, p. 86.

[7] Larencich-Minelli, Laura; “Museography and Ethnographical Collections in Bologna Duing the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries” The Origins of Museums, ed. Oliver Impey and Aurthur MacGregor (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985) p. 20


[8] Feest, Christian; “Mexico and South America in the European Wunderkammer” in Origins of the Museum, p. 240

[9] Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean; Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge (London: Routledge, 1992) p. 90

[10] See Hooper-Greenhill's discussion pp 91-104

[11] See Yate's description, pp.136-139

[12] Yates, p. 154

[13] Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, p. 108

[14] Olmi, Giuseppe; “Science-Honor-Metaphor: Italian Cabinets of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries” in Origins, p. 7

[15] Mayr, Growth of Biological Thought, p. 173

[16] Collectors and Curiosities, p. 220.

[17] Ibid, p. 217

[18] See Caygill, Margorie; Treasures of the British Museum (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1985) pp. 182-187.

[19] Ibid., p.184.

[20] Handbook, p. vi

[21] Paudrat, pp. 132-33

[22] Peltier, p. 106

[23] Reflections, p. 153

[24] Gaugin, p. 99.

[25] Ibid., p. 97