Collecting Artifacts in the Age of Empire

Collecting Artifacts in the Age of Empire

Surekha Davies

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Print by François Ertinger showing overseas artifacts in the library of the abbey of Sainte-Geneviève in Paris. In Claude du Molinet, Le cabinet de la Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (Paris, 1692), plate 4. (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, 1976 Folio 125.)

European identity is inextricable from Europe’s views about other peoples. During the early modern period, overseas artifacts entered princely and scholarly collections, to be displayed alongside natural and artificial curiosities from classical cameos to blowfish. The antiquarian study of Europe’s past became connected to observing distant peoples. By the late eighteenth century, perceptions of distant peoples had shifted from curiosity and admiration to a growing conviction that Europeans resided atop a cultural, technological, and racial hierarchy. Historians and literary scholars have explored the emergence of modern notions of race in the contexts of the Atlantic slave trade and of scientific endeavors. Art historians have shown how objects moved across cultures. However, the central part played by artifacts and collections in constituting new ideas about cultural hierarchy has received less attention. This book lies at the intersection of collecting, identity, and cultural hierarchy. How did overseas artifacts shape explanations of human diversity? Why did objects move between art, antiquities, ethnographic and natural history collections, and what does this tell us about notions of cultural hierarchy? To what extent did cabinets of curiosities and their eventual transformation into early museums shape indigenous and European identities? This book uses these questions to understand why artifact collections mattered. By analyzing travel and geographical literature, inventories, artifacts, and archives, it argues that there was a feedback loop between artifactual encounters and national identities; collections were forms of cultural memory that imagined communities, ideas of civilized and barbarous societies, and, eventually, modern citizens and indigenous peoples.