Tag Archive for: Critical Heritage Studies

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]

Senior Research Associate, Assembling Alternative Futures for Heritage

Svalbard_Global_Seed_Bank_Matthias_Heyde

Senior Research Associate, Assembling Alternative Futures for Heritage (2015-2016)

AAFH — or ‘Heritage Futures’ — is a flagship four-year research project funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council in the ‘Care for the Future’ strategic programme. Four interconnected themes, each led by a separate researcher, will ‘explore the potential for innovation and creative exchange across a broad range of heritage and related fields, in partnership with a number of academic and non-academic institutions and interest groups.’

 

I received a call from Sharon MacDonald in February of 2014, telling me about an exciting large-scale project that she had been developing with other colleagues. The project would explore and recalibrate the collecting and preserving of cultural and natural heritage in all its complex manifestations — material, digital, intangible — in the framework of 21st century social, technological and economic contexts, as well as the environmental shifts of the anthropocene.  They were looking for a colleague to join the group as part of the funding bid package, a colleague who had the skills to address and effect inter-institutional and interdisciplinary knowledge exchange, and to guide in the formulation of exhibitionary experiments.  With my experience of cross-polinating between museum and academia, and my extensive involvement with collecting institutions across the range from natural historical to biological and anatomical, including historical material culture and archival collections, Sharon felt I would be a good fit.

Sharon and I have known each other and each others’ work for many years, crossing paths notably at the Science Museum in the late 1990s, when I was creating Atomism & Animism, and she was researching and writing Behind the Scenes at the Science Museum. But this was an opportunity to actually work together for the first time, and I was delighted to accept. As a named researcher on the AHRC Grant Application, my areas of activity are outlined in the Case for Support as ‘Senior Research Assistant (knowledge exchange and cross-disciplinary working)’; facilitating ‘cross-WP KEPWs’, ‘interdisciplinary knowledge exchange, dissemination and impact’, ‘pop-up kiosk exhibitions and overall programme-level exhibition’.

Shortly after the grant was awarded, the full team held a working meeting to get to know each other, our areas of interest, and to explore the overarching links between each others’ research questions. The meeting was held in October 2014 at Linnaeus University in Kalmar, kindly hosted by one of the Co-Investigators, Cornelius Holtorf, who is Professor of Archaeology at Linnaeus University and Director of the Graduate School in Contract Archaeology.

AAFH_Team_Kalmar_2014

 

The project got going in earnest in April 2015, and at our May planning meeting that year I contributed three overview presentations — one concerning exhibition practice and experiments, another concerning virtual research environments for the Team, and a third concerning planning and record-keeping for impact ‘narratives.’  During our workshops, my contributions and critiques concerning controlled vocabularies and metadata, current museum practice, and history-of-science approaches to understanding the move from material to molecular in biological collections were valued.

Over the following year, I produced several proposals for the integration of innovative exhibitionary practices into the field work, research programme, and knowledge exchange events of AAFH, as well as concepts and budgets for flexible pop-up displays that could work as well in public fora as they would in academic contexts. I outlined a number of these proposals in a lecture entitled ‘Ideas on the Move’, at the invitation of the Bikuben Foundation, Denmark, on the occasion of their symposium Considering Exhibitions (National Museum of Denmark, 23 August 2015).

I built a virtual research environment for the Team using Google Drive and tools, so that it was up and running rapidly — and then I restructured and migrated our data into Evernote so that the advantages of Evernote’s tagging and workchat would better support this highly distributed Team. My contributions to the VRE included a list of visual artists whose work and practices would be of value and interest to the Team members — in this way, I introduced them to the work of artists such as Yann Mingard, Bill Burns, Maria Thereza Alvez, Lisa Autogena, and the Boyle Family.  I was also able to direct the Team to best practice guidelines in commissioning and working with artists. In the end, the project has mainly focused on filmmaking, with lead Creative Fellow Antony Lyons not only training all five research associates in filmmaking, but also bringing his own subsequent Arts Council Grant to the table.

I also built a quick-and-dirty website to rapidy profile the project online while I drew up a requirements document and spec-sheet for the real thing, researching best-fit designers. The Team went with the creative agency that I had identified — The District (Cambridge) — who have done a great job as you can see on the AAFH website.

As the Heritage Futures project developed, individual projects differentiated themselves and began their unique research trajectories.  When I was offered the chance in later 2016 to take up the post of Deputy Director at the V&A Research Institute, where I would be in a position to begin actually experimenting with and operationalising process design in museum future-making, I took it.  

 

Traditional medicines for sale at kiosks; Wolong Nature Reserve,

 

Further Links: Sharon MacDonald, Humboldt Professor; Antony Lyons, Filmmaker

[Image References: Svalbard Global Seed Bank Entryway, Norway, by Mari Tefre; Svalbard Global Seed Bank Underground Corridor, by Matthias Heyde; Group Photo, First Team Meeting, Kalmar 2014; IUCN: traditional medicines market, Wolong, China]

Museums as Social Learning Spaces: Denmark

thomas_ravn_speaking_at_den_gamle_by_open_air_museum

‘Inclusion and Interdisciplinarity’ at Social Learning Space & Knowledge Producing Processes: the Danish Museums & Galleries User Survey (May 2013)

As part of a group of four international experts, I participated in a week-long tour of Danish Museums which culminated in a two-day conference at the contemporary art museum Arken (13-15 May 2013). Organised by the Danish Government’s Kulturstyrelsen, both the tour and the conference were intended to stimulate practices leading to deeper connections between museums and their visitors, and between the visitors themselves. The other members of the expert group were Lynn Dierking, John Falk, and Amareswar Galla.

 

My contribution to the conference concerned the direct relationship between innovative museum practice and the quality, quantity and kind of visitors that frequent a museum. I proposed that a robust interdisciplinary process of thinking and working – across museum departments and with outside colleagues – can produce projects that inherently engage new audiences, and engage return audiences at a deeper level than ever before. This is certainly an approach that I have deployed to good effect in my own work – not least in a Danish museum, the Medical Museion of the University of Copenhagen.

Each of us four keynote speakers had been paired with a Danish museum: my ‘twin’ for the conference was Naturama, a relatively new and successful visitor attraction that has been built up from an historically significant collection of Danish natural history specimens – The Svendborg Zoologiske Museum.

naturama_svendborg_denmark

I was able to bring together knowledge garnered while I was working at the Natural History Museum (London) and research being effected in animal studies arenas, alongside groundbreaking exhibition projects by artists such as Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson and others, in order to propose some concrete ways in which Naturama – and indeed other natural history museums – can work with their collections to think differently and anew about both nature and visitors.

The Kulturstyrelsen (Danish Agency for Culture) has uploaded to their YouTube channel the video documents made of this and the other presentations at the conference, and it makes really informative viewing. The shift from a focus on project to a focus on process is an important one, and I was impressed by the range and number of delegates to the conference. Over 200 museum professionals attended, and participated in four short workshops devised by the speakers with a view to developing practical tools and strategies to galvanise the their spaces, collections, colleagues and websites into dynamic nodes of social exchange and knowledge production.

The attendees represent the 200 museums and galleries in Denmark that participate every year in the production of a User Survey. Museum visitor surveys and evaluation practices have become ubiquitous, but the design of the questions and the use of the data is rarely as interesting as in the 2012 Danish Kulturstyrelsen Survey and conference. This past year, the survey included a series of questions designed by lifelong learning specialist John Falk (also one of the expert group for the tour and conference) to explore learning styles and visitor motivations far beyond number-and-type demographics.

The outcome is a revelation. Far from the market segmentation of the usual visitor survey, Falk’s approach gives a sense of continuity between visitors and non-visitors, why and how, thoughts and feelings, meeting place and head-space. Outlined in the User Survey publication – which also includes a more traditional, 20th century-style overview of the visitor to Danish Museums – Falk’s approach offers a dynamic set of working propositions for fostering great partnerships between museums and people.

The publication also includes an inspiring introduction by Ida Brændholt Lundgaard, the Kulturstyrelsen’s Senior Adviser for Museums, and her assistant Jacob Thorek Jensen. Danes are not afraid of philosophy, and the introduction is refreshingly coherent in relation to the phenomenological aspects of the museum experience as well as a careful analysis of visitor metrics. It was Ida and Jacob who also organised our tour of Danish museums which preceded the conference.

Over a number of days, they took me, Lynn, John and Amar to see the following museums and meet with their directors and staff to discuss learning partnerships in museum contexts.

  • Kunsten, Museum of Modern Art (Aalborg)
  • Skagen Museum (Skagen)
  • Michael and Anna Anchers House (Skagen)
  • Museum Jorn (Silkeborg)
  • Den Gamle By Open Air Museum (Aarhus)
  • Royal Jelling Monument (Jelling)
  • Naturama (Svendborg)
  • Roskilde Cathedral Heritage Site (Roskilde)
  • Viking Ship Museum (Roskilde)
  • Copenhagen City Museum (Copenhagen)

 

Along the way, we walked in heritage landscapes such as Grenen Strand and the palisades built by Harald Bluetooth in the 900s. We also saw ports and countryside, agricultural histories and seafaring, fishing histories carved into the coast and the loam. This too is highly significant cultural heritage and the interplay with museum and gallery presentation is both subtle and deep. What the trip from Skagen to Svendborg and across to Copenhagen meant was that by the time the ‘expert group’ stood at the podium to present our papers at the conference, we had a much more deeply nuanced sense of the integrity of Danish cultural life and museum practice than would have been imagined even a week before.*

I hope that our visit, so beautifully hosted by the Danish Cultural Agency and the generous museums we visited, has returned this hospitality with useful and inspiring thoughts. Museums and their collections of all kinds have extraordinary potential to radically improve well-being, social cohesion, levels of common knowledge, skills for life, and the capacity for reflection.

skagens_museum_brondums_dining_room

 

 

My lecture has been videocast by the Danish Kulturstyrelsen on their YouTube Channel. The entire conference can be accessed through the Kulturstyrelsen Museums Department website.

Further Links: Danish Kulturstyrelsen Museums Development Department; Naturama; Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson; Amareswar Galla and the Inclusive Museum; John Falk; Lynn Dierking

[Image References: Conference Plenary at Arken in May 2013; Thomas Block Ravn speaking to the visiting expert group at the open air museum Den Gamle By, of which he is the Director; panorama of the land-based animal specimens on display at Naturama; the reconstruction of Brøndum’s dining room at the Skagen Museum]

 

* Over my years of visiting and working in Denmark, I had already attended a raft of other extraordinary museums: Silkeborg Museum and Tollund Man; Moesgaard Museum and Graubelle Man; Brandts Building including the Media Museum; Danish National Museum Copenhagen; Museum of the Danish Resistance; Lyngby Open Air Museum; Brede Werk; Natural History Museum, including the Botanical Gardens and the Geological Musem; Faergegarden Museum; Louisiana Museum; Theatre Museum; National Archives; Royal Library; Royal Danish Arsenal Museum; Danish Museum of Art & Design; National Art Gallery; Rosenborg Castle; Danish Architecture Centre; Danish Design Centre