Collecting across Cultures: Material Exchanges in the Early Atlantic World

Collecting across Cultures: Material Exchanges in the Early Atlantic World

Collecting across Cultures: Material Exchanges in the Early Atlantic World

Collecting across Cultures: Material Exchanges in the Early Atlantic World


In the early modern age more people traveled farther than at any earlier time in human history. Many returned home with stories of distant lands and at least some of the objects they collected during their journeys. And those who did not travel eagerly acquired wondrous materials that arrived from faraway places. Objects traveled various routes--personal, imperial, missionary, or trade--and moved not only across space but also across cultures.

Histories of the early modern global culture of collecting have focused for the most part on European Wunderkammern, or "cabinets of curiosities." But the passion for acquiring unfamiliar items rippled across many lands. The court in Java marveled at, collected, and displayed myriad goods brought through its halls. African princes traded captured members of other African groups so they could get the newest kinds of cloth produced in Europe. Native Americans sought colored glass beads made in Europe, often trading them to other indigenous groups. Items changed hands and crossed cultural boundaries frequently, often gaining new and valuable meanings in the process. An object that might have seemed mundane in some cultures could become a target of veneration in another.

The fourteen essays in Collecting Across Cultures represent work by an international group of historians, art historians, and historians of science. Each author explores a specific aspect of the cross-cultural history of collecting and display from the dawn of the sixteenth century to the early decades of the nineteenth century. As the essays attest, an examination of early modern collecting in cross-cultural contexts sheds light on the creative and complicated ways in which objects in collections served to create knowledge--some factual, some fictional--about distant peoples in an increasingly transnational world.


Malcolm Baker

The publication of Collecting Across Cultures marks a significant moment within the history of collecting as it has developed as a distinctive discipline over the previous quarter century. But what of its lineage? the generally acknowledged starting point for this area of study was Julius von Schlosser’s Die Kunst- und Wunderkammern der Spätrenaisssance, published in 1908, with its analysis of that astonishing range of material that made up the “Cabinet of Curiosity.” After that, however, the most innovative work on collecting was concerned largely with art collecting, led by Francis Haskell with his Patrons and Painters: a Study in the Relations Between Italian Art and Society in the Age of the Baroque (1963) and Rediscoveries in Art: Some Aspects of Taste, Fashion, and Collecting in England and France (1976). in 1983, however, a groundbreaking conference was organized at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford to commemorate the tercentenary of the institution’s foundation. As a member of that audience, I remember vividly how, through a succession of papers about the amassing in many different places of objects as diverse as shells, Kleinplastik, scientific instruments, and fossils, the collection was once more revealed to be made up of much more than works of art. of course, these papers did not grow out of nothing and pioneering work on the breadth of specific collections had already been done by, among others, Lina Bolzoni on Francesco de Medici’s studiolo, Krzystof Pomian’s studies of Parisian and Venetian collectors, and Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann on Rudolf II’s Kunstkammer. Around the same time, Stephen Bann’s influential book, The Clothing of Clio: a Study of the Representation of History in Nineteenth-Century Britain and France (1984), exploring the rhetorical models employed by early public museums, opened other interpretative possibilities, while the research for Paula Findlen’s equally important Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (1994) was . . .

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