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Conference papers

Nobody’s Collection? Collecting for the French Municipal Museums, 1800-1870

Abstract : Over twenty years after its publication, what is there to write, still, on ‘Cultures of Natural History’? Ongoing research shows the multiplication of case studies along the more central ones of London Paris and ‘bigger’ collections. The papers in this panel wish to render this trend and to contribute to de-centring the historian’s gaze from big collections and established institutions taking a closer look outside the museum walls, into the world of collation practices and motivations, in short, of the practical making of collections. Natural history collections and museums were often designated as the representatives of national, imperial, regional or local flora and fauna, when not assigned with the task to be the place of crystallization of national discourses or even personal successes. And for varied reasons and in varied settings natural history museums were made the calculating centres for their specific identity. The appeal, or rather status (Alberti), of the museums was however a construct which is at the centre of this session’s attention. Looking at practices of collecting reveals that not all the contributions to museum collections were systematic, whole, homogeneous, or obsessed with completion and trying to fill in all the gaps in knowledge. To assist in the growth of the collections both in quantity and in quality, museum directors and museum managers had to control and contain data in their collections as well as the personal agendas of collectors, or political agendas coming down from their hierarchy. Sending, shipping, or selling materials to a museum was not spontaneous: there were different typologies of suppliers of specimens who were not your run of the mill collector. Colonial administrators, diplomats, or more occasional contributors would insist and hope the materials supplied be incorporated into national or local museums. In this way the majority of museums’ “agents” in the field were, in fact, mediators and facilitators or even retailers of nature in the field or the colony, being themselves a recognized centre of accumulation in their specific community, and acting as active nodes in an even larger network, preparing, shipping, and corresponding with the museum. All these different types of collators did not belong necessarily to the typologies of the learned explorer or collector that is usually associated with large-scale museums. Many collaborators of museums entered into a relationship with museums in terms of a gift economy that has had not enough attention so far. Realizing the value of such contributors, museums issued instructions of standardized practices of collection, preparation and shipment, would pay for shipments, and would also provide instruments and materials for the field, in the hope to entice more collaborators. In being places of naming standardizing, sterilizing, and crystallizing knowledge encapsulated in the collected objects and specimens, museums thereby worked and and constructed their authority in transforming nature. The study of the uphill practices of collecting nature helps understand how that authority was built.
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Contributor : Deborah Dubald <>
Submitted on : Tuesday, April 14, 2020 - 9:13:29 PM
Last modification on : Friday, April 2, 2021 - 12:00:02 PM


  • HAL Id : halshs-02542761, version 1



Déborah Dubald. Nobody’s Collection? Collecting for the French Municipal Museums, 1800-1870. European Society for the History of Science / British Society for the History of Science joint conference, Sep 2018, London, United Kingdom. ⟨halshs-02542761⟩



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