Insects as a Global Commodity: collecting specimens in early 20th-century Taiwan

Insects as a Global Commodity: Collecting Specimens in Early 20th-century Taiwan

lepidoptera.jpeg

Packaging materials used by Hans Sauter to send Lepidoptera from Taiwan to Germany in the early 20th century. Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, coll. Lepidoptera and Trichoptera. Photo by Kerstin Pannhorst.

This project focuses on practices and concepts surounding the collecting and trading of insects in early twentieth-century Taiwan. It explores the origins and entanglement of a mass-fabrication of research specimens, decorative art, and knowledge. Early in the twentieth century, Hans Sauter, a German entomologist and collecting entrepreneur based in Taiwan, collaborated with the first director of the German Entomological Museum towards the "mass-fabrication of knowledge" about Taiwan's insect world. Tens of thousands of carefully packaged insects were sent along global trading routes towards the goal of a successive publication of the "complete fauna of Formosa". At the same time, Yasuhi Nawa and other Japanese entomologists and entrepreneurs also collected extensively on the island, then a Japanese colony. The animals served them as a resource both for research into insects relevant to the large-scale agricultural production being established in colonial Taiwan, and for the mass-production of decorative objects such as paper fans made using butterfly specimens. Albeit they were driven by very different motivations, these actors, respectively their employees, met in the field, where they competed for specimens, but also exchanged ideas and collecting practices.

In each case, fleas, beetles, or butterflies became resources that were accumulated, traded, and turned into artefacts—into "authentic" representations of nature for research purposes or into aesthetic objects for use in the decorative arts. The project focuses on the highly specialized practices of collecting and processing different species of insects and on the global circulation of these fragile materials. The dissertation will explore how scientific and artisanal practices stabilized each other in this specific context and led to a mass production of insect artefacts and insect knowledge.