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.
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.
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.
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.
[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]