Tag Archive for: Berlin

Museum Godeffroy, Hamburg: The South Sea in the North Sea

MfN Kleinschmidt Bird

Senior Research Fellow, Understanding Written Artefacts, University of Hamburg  (2019-2020)

 

The ‘Museum Godeffroy’ of Hamburg was both short-lived (1861-1885) as a public venue and incredibly long-lived in terms of its impact. Its extensive trade with other significant collections worldwide — collections which still retain large numbers of Godeffroy natural history specimens — include the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin and London’s Natural History Museum. Through its highly effective and standardised duplicate sales catalogues and logistical streamlining, it distributed and sold natural historical and ethnographic materials across the globe, including sales made back to the very regions from which it collected in Australia-Pacific among others. Skilfully interwoven with the vast Godeffroy & Sohn trading empire in what was then known in Europe as the South Sea, the Museum was ‘scientized’ through an equally well-distributed network of learned natural historians willing to assist in species determinations in exchange for rebates on purchases, as well as through the creation of a lavish publishing programme.

 

 

For most of the academic year 2019-2020 I have been effecting research on the Museum Godeffroy as a Petra Kappert Visiting Research Fellow with the University of Hamburg’s Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures. The Centre is home to one of the most prestigious research grants awarded by the German State — an Excellence Cluster – the funding for which has supported my Fellowship. Understanding Written Artefacts investigates the material objects of manuscript cultures, globally and in a wide range of time periods.

 

One of the five major areas of inquiry for Understanding Written Artefacts is the node on ‘Archiving Artefacts’ — examining the physical and spatial contexts for the structuring of written information into conceptual and retrievable formations. Of course, these archival practices have a direct bearing on the production of knowledge, be it in property law or in religious observance, and naturally ‘Archiving Artefacts’ also looks at ‘the relationship of collections of written artefacts with other objects, e.g. in museums’. The spokesperson for this area of inquiry on the larger Excellence Cluster is Markus Friedrich, the author of the magisterial The Birth of the Archive: A History of Knowledge.

 

archival folder museum godeffroy files mfn

 

I first met Markus when we were both Visiting Scholars at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in 2012, in the framework of the ‘Sciences of the Archive’ project led by Lorraine Daston. Both Markus and I were effecting research on the materiality of collections inside a working group that generally had much more esoteric and malleable bodies of knowledge in their sights, such as astronomical or meteorological data. At that time, I was beginning to trace some of the epistemological links between the natural history collection management practices of Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753) and 21st Century practices in high-throughput genomic databases like BOLD (Barcode of Life). Markus was working on his manuscript for The Birth of The Archive. It was a pleasure to share notes on our messy, organic subjects and the organised disorganisation of collecting and categorisation in early modern Europe.

 

When I saw that Markus had included a study of a natural history collection in his area of the ‘Understanding Written Artefacts’ Cluster, I got in touch. ‘Label, object and collection — principles, practices and reflections of the genesis of knowledge’ was initiated by the Director of the University of Hamburg’s natural history museum (CeNak) Professor Matthias Glaubrecht. He saw that the labelling of natural history collections constitutes a form of manuscript culture that clearly plays a crucial part in knowledge creation in the natural sciences. Matthias’s interest in, and knowledge of, the Museum Godeffroy is of long date, stretching back to his dissertation years based at the University of Hamburg in the Museum of which he is now the Director — a Museum which holds a substantial proportion of what was once the Museum Godeffroy. Between his disputation in 1994 and his appointment as Director of CeNak in 2014, he held a range of other posts, including twelve years at the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin – where there are also considerable Godeffroy-related materials.

 

Museum Godeffroy Label Octopus

 

The three of us met in June 2019 and agreed to propose a Fellowship to enable me to bring my experience of research on histories of knowledge production in museum and collection practices to bear on the project outline that Matthias had created. Through my extensive work on the early modern manuscript catalogues of Sir Hans Sloane, whose collections of natural historical and economic botany specimens and research documents formed the basis of the British Museum / Natural History Museum, I am very familiar with the complex and evolving indexical and epistemological relations between specimens, labels and catalogues. These information architectures are key paper tools with both significant materiality and critical agency in the development of morphology and taxonomy, yet we still lack a full understanding of their emergence, history and imbrication with specimens in knowledge- and method-producing practices over time.

 

It has been wonderful to be part of the international research arena that has been created at the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures under its Director, Professor Michael Friedrich, the eminent sinologist. The range and scope of research at the Centre is unparalleled, and has given me a chance to return to my training in history of the book, as well as to tie this in with my work in history of collections and of natural history. As with many of my projects, this one has also involved moving back and forth between museum and university contexts, and I have also been welcomed and supported through collaborations with highly knowledgable curators and collections managers at the CeNak.

 

With their help, I have been able to effect primary research at the CeNak on Godeffroy-related historical collections and labelling practices, and we have also worked with the UWA ‘Object Profiling Team’ to analyse inks and paper compositions of Museum Godeffroy labels from the later 19th Century. We will be co-authoring an article about our findings in the coming months. I’ve also visited archives where outgoing correspondence from the Museum Godeffroy – mainly from its then ‘Custos,’ Johannes Dietrich Eduard Schmeltz (1839 – 1909) — shines a clear light on the reciprocity between collections and duplicate sales of the materials that the Godeffroy empire was able to commission from envoys and scouts across the Pacific. This subject of duplicates is the focus of a working group at the Department of the Humanities of Nature at the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin, and I will be participating with my findings. I’ve also been able to delve into business history, which is a new field for me, and have had some excellent guidance from the Stiftung Hanseatisches Wirtschaftsarchiv in Hamburg.

 

object profiling team UWA Hamburg

 

The Fellowship period has enabled me to refine the project scope and research questions and give clearer definition to the methods and aims of the project. It is clear to me that the scale and reach of a coherent project concerning the Museum Godeffroy and its afterlives must match the scale and scope of the original 19th Century project in a number of significant ways. Both natural history and ethnographic materials were collected and traded: the link between these two disciplines, and between science and commerce, are sharply delineated in the case of Godeffroy. A rigorous research project concerning the Museum Godeffroy would also look closely at the intertwined nature of colonial practice and logistics, as well as the practices in museology and biology that these have engendered. It must involve museums from all across Europe which purchased significant specimens from Godeffroy. Ultimately, any project hoping to address the Museum Godeffroy as a phenomenon should include researchers from the Pacific nations, great and small, where all this teeming life was collected, and which reflects an ecosystem that has now been profoundly altered.

 

Perhaps the forensic work of ‘understanding written artefacts’ can hope to understand not just the epistemes, but also the deeper existential and even ethical connections between trade practices and science practice, and in so doing also perform a kind of colonial provenance research for the natural world of the Pacific, in which historical, environmental and climate justice could all hope to be served.

 

museum godeffroy doubletten catalogue detail

 

 

Further Links: Centre for the Study of Manuscript CulturesCentrum für Naturkunde HamburgHumanities of Nature – Museum für NaturkundeStiftung Hanseatisches Wirtschaftsarchiv

 

[Image References: Egg of the Ardea sacra, collected for Museum Godeffroy on Lunado Levu 15 September 1875, Museum für Naturkunde Berlin; Bird specimen (Pachycephala torquata) collected by Kleinschmidt on Tavinui December 1875, Museum für Naturkunde Berlin; bound correspondence files, Historische Arbeitsstelle, Museum für Naturkunde Berlin; Museum Godeffroy label for an Octopus specimen, CeNak Hamburg; Object Profiling Team of the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures setting up a multi-spectral imaging session with Museum Godeffroy specimen labels]

 

Politics of Natural History

cinchona bark and peruvian researcher roque rodriguez

Natural historical materials, beyond the more obvious case of physical anthropology, have remained until quite recently largely outside of the important discussion and debate around heritage — both tangible and intangible — in relation to human rights and cultural goods across an asymmetric globe.

 

The deep schism in museological practice and function between museums of material culture — be they decorative arts, ethnography, archaeology, or fine art museums — and the museum of natural history may have briefly postponed the moment when these issues become critically important to examine, but such arbitrary disciplinary differences are increasingly intellectually untenable in the face of the moral imperative of decolonisation.

This exclusion of natural historical materials from this debate to date has in part been due to the very strong ring-fencing and contextualisation of these kinds of materials as existing in a circumscribed ‘science’ arena that is incorrectly deemed to be entirely outside a cultural or heritage framework.  Collections of zoological materials and herbaria in particular have been understood through the twentieth century to have significance in the Global North mainly for the life sciences such as biology, zoology, molecular research and genetics, phytology, chemistry and so on.  And in this same period, science practice itself was well scaffolded as being concerned uniquely with absolute, repeatable, timeless and discoverable matters of fact that were in no way open to the productive ambiguity of the cultural ‘objet’.

This broad-brush outline fits if we look at 20th century natural history from the point of view of most biologists.  But it does not tell the whole story if we look at natural history from the point of view of historians and philosophers of science and of knowledge practices in the 21st century, and if we look at natural history from the point of view of historians of collections and of globalisation. It is certainly not the whole story for indigenous peoples whose deep-time worldviews include, to take but one example, direct connections between ancestors and organic materials such as dried plants — organic materials with spiritual and cultural attributes, as well as (or in spite of) its western scientific attributes.

I have been investigating the relationship between natural history, colonisation, and museum practice for many years in different contexts — beginning with the large-scale site-specific project The Wilds and The Deep, which I created with Lyne Lapointe in 1990, through to my work at London’s Natural History Museum two decades later when I was part of the team setting up the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research there.  But recently there has been an acceleration of research in this nexus, and I have shared my expertise with colleagues in  Göttingen, Berlin, Copenhagen and London over the past year alone.

In Berlin, I spoke at the ‘Politics of Natural History’ conference organised by the Museum für Naturkunde and the Technische Universität Berlin in September of 2018.  Alongside the historian of natural history Dominik Hünniger, we presented preliminary findings from a workshop that we had led during my research fellowship at the University of Göttingen earlier that year.  Our joint presentation, Putting Metadata to Work: Modelling Information on Historical Collections of Natural History in Social Justice Contexts, outlined some of the difficulties to be encountered in aligning bodies of knowledge from different time periods, knowledge regimes, and cultural contexts, and in attempting to configure those bodies of knowledge in more equitable relations.

A sustained and ongoing investigation into the histories, methods and influences of globalised economic botany is being led at Kew Gardens by Felix Driver, Caroline Cornish and Mark Nesbitt.  This May 2019, their international conference ‘Collections in Circulation’ will see a highly interdisciplinary group of museum professionals and other researchers delve into what happens to biocultural collections over their long lifespans and wide circulations.  I will also be speaking at this event, summing up and highlighting what the papers might collectively be pointing towards.

 

Cinchona Distribution in GBIG

[Image References:  Herbarium specimen of Theobroma cacao, as collected by Sir Hans Sloane in Jamaica in 1687 (NHM London); bark of the Cinchona tree held by Roque Rodriguez; Screenshot of the distribution of herbarium specimens of Cinchona ledgeriana]

Research Fellow, University of Göttingen (2018)

Sammlungen-der-Universitaet-erhalten-Zentrale-Kustodie

Deepening and renewing the connections between university research and collections, the University of Göttingen has created a ‘Zentrale Kustodie’  as a development centre for its extraordinarily rich collections, amassed over 250 years. It has a dedicated and highly trained staff under the leadership of Dr Marie Luisa Allemeyer, and work has already begun on the Forum Wissen — a future venue for collections research, exhibition and communication that will have an extensive public-facing programme. Due to open in a few short years in what was once the University’s Natural History Museum, Forum Wissen will significantly improve the landscape for interdisciplinary teaching and learning with, through and about collections. Partnering these developments, the University’s Institute for Advanced Study, the Litchtenberg Kolleg, extends invitations and infrastructures to visiting researchers whose knowledge spans collections practice and histories, and the histories of the disciplines.

 

 

This year I have been a Visiting Scholar at the Lichtenberg Kolleg, The University of Göttingen Institute for Advanced Study. This is a joint Fellowship with support from, and collaboration with, the University’s Zentrale Kustodie for university collections and the Office of the Chair in the Materiality of Knowledge. Working with all three entities on a range of projects, it has been a stimulating and exciting time.

 

It was not my first visit to Göttingen: in February of 2016 I was invited by Marie Luisa Allemeyer, Director of the Zentrale Kustodie, to speak on the ‘Wissensort Museum’ Programme of lectures known as the Ringvorlesung. Following the lecture I was able to spend several days at the University as a guest of the Zentrale Kustodie, visiting and viewing the extensive departmental collections and discussing the research and teaching plans that the Kustodie has been developing for one of the most innovative and inspiring initiatives taking place in university museum contexts today. When I received the invitation to return to the University of Göttingen that was extended by Dominik Hünniger, the Managing Director of the Lichtenberg Kolleg, I was delighted.

 

The Lichtenberg Kolleg has a research working group dedicated to Enlightenment Studies: ‘Globalising the Enlightenment: Knowledge, Culture, Travel, Exchange and Collections.’ It is a wide-ranging and rigorous remit, ensuring ‘the interdisciplinary study of the Göttingen and European Enlightenment(s) within its wider Atlantic and Global Contexts. Göttingen is not only associated with the Enlightenment’s German manifestations, but also with the Enlightenment of other European and Atlantic regions and countries.’ In this framework I have been having a closer look at the European networks of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), furthering my work on the origins and meanings of Sloane’s early modern collections that are the foundation collections of the British Museum, British Library and Natural History Museum.

 

The Fellowship has also enabled me to work with Dominik, who is also an historian of science with an interest in natural history collections and entomology in particular. While working at the Natural History Museum (London) to help set up a Centre for Arts and Humanities Research there from 2009-2011, I had recommended that the Museum and its collections could be a significant focus for understanding the co-production of scientific and medical knowledge in the historical context of early modern colonisation and global trade. In the blueprint for CAHR’s Strategic Research Programme that I authored in 2011, I wrote:

‘Increasingly in history of science circles, the co-production of scientific knowledge and method in the experience of ‘first contacts’ is becoming an area of sustained research. Professor James Delbourgo, Professor Londa Scheibinger, Professor Neil Safier, and Dr Kathleen Murphy are looking at North and South American contexts, and others are approaching the Indian Subcontinent and Australasia. New models of international agreement for the stewardship of global ecosystems are emerging. At the Nagoya 2010 meeting of the Convention on Biodiversity, a number of binding international agreements were made, not least the agreement on Access and Benefit Sharing of genetic resources in the biosphere. Though the protocol is not retroactively binding and therefore does not cover collections such as the NHM, it is related structurally and morally to the Traditional Knowledge (TK) that is bound up in the collections: the Museum needs humanities advice about how best to approach these issues with a long-term view.’

 

Dominik and I discussed these issues and the increasing body of humanities research that is dovetailing together the histories of colonisation and empire, environmental history, histories of collections, and histories of science and knowledge production. We then designed an exploratory workshop for Göttingen researchers which could begin to chart this research territory in relation to present-day policy contexts. These current policy contexts go beyond the Nagoya Protocol to include, for example, the Intergovernmental Committee on Traditional Knowledge that is being managed through the World Intellectual Property Organisation. What might early modern museum catalogues contain in terms of critical information about the contributions of the colonised and the enslaved to the long-term development of biological and medical knowledge? Are these archival records forms of ‘intellectual property’ that could have value in social justice contexts as well as in epistemological contexts?

 

We took these thoughts and the contributions of our working group to the recent conference ‘Politics of Natural History‘ organised by the Museums für Naturkunde in Berlin. The subtitle of the conference was ‘How to Decolonise the Natural History Museum?’ and this remains an open question: we hope that our contribution will have gone some way towards the kinds of methods that will have to be developed in order to make this a reality. In terms of my own histories, I can see this question recurring again and again — both with The Wilds and The Deep (1990) and in my work with CAHR (2009-2011).

 

 

UGottingen Zentrale Kustordie Research

 

Working in Göttingen also gave me the opportunity to reconnect with Margarete Vöhringer, who has been appointed as Professor in the University’s Chair for the Materiality of Knowledge — a position unique to my knowledge in Europe. Her Professorship will see her working across disciplines in her areas of expertise between the history of art and the history of science, working closely with the Zentrale Kustodie and the University’s collections to train students at all levels in methods of material culture of the history of knowledge. With Margarete I have been sharing knowledge about training in collections-based research and looking at the design of pedagogical underpinnings for the group of doctoral researchers who will be taking up Volkswagen-Stiftung funded scholarships this academic year to study the history of exhibitions.

 

It is not the first time that Margarete and I have worked on histories of exhibitions in tandem. I first met Margarete in 2008 when we were both researchers at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and then in 2010 she co-convened a significant conference entitled ‘Wissenschaft im Museum / Austellung im Laborat the Universität Tübingen with Anke Te Heesen (now Professor of the History of Science at the Humboldt University, Berlin). The premise was to explore the porosity between museum practice and science practice – across the whole range of sites of knowledge from labs and teaching contexts to exhibitions and professional self-fashioning. As one of the speakers, I presented an overview of the development of Split + Splice (2009) alongside co-curator Susanne Bauer. The proceedings have been published by Kadmos, appearing in 2014 under the same title as the conference.

 

This conference was also my first introduction to Christian Vogel, who at the time presented early draft sections of what was then his doctoral project, concerning the design of lab and clinic based X-Ray displays in Germany in the 1910s. Happily, Christian is now the Research Manager at the Zentrale Kustodie at the University of Göttingen, and he worked closely with Margarete to develop the framework for the history of exhibitions doctoral projects that Margarete is leading. It was wonderful to be invited to bring my own expertise into this context, working with colleagues I respect and admire.

 

Forum Wissen UGottingen Math Models

 

I was also invited to contribute to some of the development workshops for the design of research teaching and training with the University’s collections that will be taking place in the new Forum Wissen building currently under construction. The pedagogical design process includes plans for both built infrastructures and the processes and practices that will be required to activate the collections in cross-disciplinary ways. Among the most exciting things about Forum Wissen is that it will deeply embed collections from across the university departments in teaching and research in a single site, circulating the material culture of one discipline and department into the methodological orbit of another.

 

Spearheading the development of the Forum Wissen is the Director of the Zentrale Kustodie, Marie Luisa Allemeyer. I first met both Dominik Hünniger and Marie Luisa Allemeyer in 2015 at a meeting of international University museum directors and research directors convened by The Hunterian Museum of the University of Glasgow. It was one of a cluster of meetings held that year to begin articulating the research practices that are the tacit knowledge of museum practice, and to begin to articulate them as ‘Museum as Method’ to borrow Nick Thomas’s phrase. We were also all three present a year later at the Museum as Method conference held at CRASSH, University of Cambridge. In the run-up to that conference, I laid out some of the territory that needs to be addressed on the blogsite of the ERC-funded Pacific Presences project.

 

Marie Luisa’s work in creating the team at the Zentrale Kustodie and in leading the consensus and collaboration process that is supporting both departmental collections management and the creation of the Forum Wissen is exemplary and inspiring. Supported directly by the University’s President and by an international advisory team, these interlocking projects are among the most exciting developments in University museum practice, teaching and research to be found in Europe today in my opinion. Germany is ahead of the game in joining up these dots: for the past six years, the Coordination Centre for Scientific University Collections in Germany under the sustained leadership of Dr Cornelia Weber and the guidance of Professor Dr Jochen Brüning, has consistently and persuasively made the case for the huge value of university collections to both research and teaching. With the Forum Wissen and the team at the Zentrale Kustodie, this value will finally be manifest.

 

 

Further Links: Forum Wissen Brochure;  Zentrale Kustodie;  Lichtenberg Kolleg;

 

Image, Data and the Mathematical Sublime

Painting by Numbers: Image, Data and the Mathematical Sublime in Late Twentieth Century Astrophysics, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin (May 2006)

 

Very large data sets are ‘collections’ too: in an increasingly digital world, we need to understand their materiality as continuous with other forms of material culture.  We need to understand how they are generated, how they are analysed, how they produce knowledge, and what this means in epistemological terms.

Shortly after the completion of my NESTA residency at the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge, I was invited to present my research findings at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.

Under the direction of Professor Lorraine Daston, the ‘History of Scientific Observation’ project had just got underway, and I chose to make a contribution to this project with an extensive paper about numerical databases in recent astrophysical research.  In particular, the paper concerns the coming into being, use and impact of the Automatic Plate Measuring Machine which for thirty years had been at the heart of data generation in UK astronomy.

This pivotal instrument was designed by Ed Kibblewhite on the cusp of the 1970s and operated by Mike Irwin at the Institute of Astronomy until 2005, when it was finally decommissioned.  The photograph you see above, taken by IoA Graphics Officer Amanda Smith, shows it leaving the building that was constructed to house it.

The main function of the APM was to scan very high quality all-sky survey photographic plates of the near universe and turn the numerical data generated into coherent, searchable databases. Its use precedes the wide use in telescopes of particle detecting CCDs (charge couple devices) which deliver a constant stream of numerical data. As such, it was the machine that produced an entire algorithmic lexicon for understanding the universe.

Here is an abstract of the paper, which I am currently preparing for publication:

What does “observation” mean in a digital age and how is this related to its origins in eras when visual culture was more physically tangible? Beginning with the material culture of astronomical photography and extending into current computational astrophysics, this paper traces the intertwined evolutions of data and image in astronomical practice. I will argue that, far from there existing a philosophical or methodological split between those practitioners who use images and those who use logics as ’observational’ tools, in astronomy image and logic are synonymous, collapsed into each other.

I will explore this phenomenon in part through its origin in traditional observational practices of technical and computational data extraction from photographs of the sky over a hundred year period, showing how this ’tribal memory’ affects not only contemporary astronomers’ relationship with avalanches of post-digital data, but also in turn culturally informs the production of present-day images synthesized from the accumulated data itself. The paper pays close attention particularly to the 1970s, a period in which overlap between the material culture of ’sky survey’ photographs, the design of automatic measuring devices and the rapid evolution of computer power — all functioning at the very limit of their capacities — created a nexus of image-data systems which enshrined the mobile equivalence between the two.

This evolving relationship from image to data and back again to image via scanners, computers and display technologies is a very important one for science in general and for culture at large in the last 40 years. In astronomy, the build-up of large data sets in what has been a supremely visual science of light extends the very notion of what the adjective ‘visual’ means and thus it is a good test case to examine these cultural changes.

Starting with an overview of recent historical, sociological and art historical attention paid to late 20th century astrophysics, I show different approaches to the visual culture of astronomy and to notions of aesthetics. I conclusion, I propose a mathematical sublime at the core of the production of photo-illusory visualisations of the universe produced for public consumption, and suggest that the feature missing from a clear understanding of all image-making in contemporary science is the still undeveloped context of a logic of aesthetics.

 

This project is one of several outcomes of my NESTA residency at the IoA: another was the assistant curation of You Are Here: The Design of Information.

It was to be the first of several visits to the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science as a guest researcher. On that occasion in 2006 it was fantastic to be able to compare notes across astronomical image and data with photo historian Dr Kelley Wilder (now running the Photographic History Research Centre at De Montfort University) and historian of 19th century physics and astronomy, Dr Charlotte Bigg (now a senior researcher at the Centre Alexandre Koyré in Paris), both of whom were at the MPIWG at that time.

I have also more recently been a guest researcher again at the MPIWG in March of 2012, developing an exhibition project and giving the Institute Colloquium on 21 March 2012 — about the very different subject of natural history museums.

 

Further Links:   Institute of Astronomy University of Cambridge; History of Scientific Observation, MPIWG; Dr Kelley Wilder; Dr Charlotte Bigg

[Image References: the decommissioning of the Automatic Plate Measuring Machine (Amanda Smith, 2005); black and white photo of the prototype automatic plate measuring machine by Ed Kibblewhite]