What a way to end a season’s foray into the world of historic networks, correspondence, and collecting. After finishing Fan’s book, I did not image that there could be one with even more methodological examples of what I want to do. Samuel Alberti’s Nature an Culture is that book. It is exactly what I want to do in my own research only aimed at museums in the United States.
This book should be on every modern natural historians shelf, and the paperback is cheap enough on Amazon that it is an easy addition. This book is an institutional history of the Manchester museum, but is it also a biography of the objects inside the museum. Further still, it is a cultural history of the nature of collecting for museums. It is not hyperbole to say that this short book has something for nearly everyone.
The very first connection (and reaffirmation that I am traveling in the right circles for my project) came on page three where Alberti quotes Simon Knell: “Natural scientists, archaeologists, and art historians, in some respects, share a similar engagement with objects: they build whole subjects from material things” (3). If you have noticed there are many art related posts here, and it wasn’t until I came to the University of Oklahoma that I became more active in art history research. Having trained as a paleontologist and archaeologist prior to coming to Norman I was 2/3 whole so to speak. The work I have done in Art History here has seemed a natural extension of the work that I had done previously, and Alberti citing Knell may serve as an official (and independent) seal on my decision to have my outside dissertation committee member (and 1/3 of my graded comprehensive exams) filled by a prominent historian of Art and the American West.
Alberti is able to trace out nearly a century of change within one institution. Nothing related to the museum escapes his analysis–from the famous artifacts like the mummies down to the collections that never went on display. He also does not ignore the individuals who worked in and with the museum from the director down to the charwomen. This is the holistic approach that must be made in order to fully understand the world of museum histories and their place within the politics of a university, city, or nation.
The book is more a collection of essays than a standard narrative. The thread that weaves the entire collection together is the museum itself. The best way to describe it is to use the movie time-lapse example. In many movies, usually near the end, there is a dramatic time-lapse that brings the historical point of reference up to the modern. Usually this is a landscape shot which shows the varying skylines of a city. In the case of Nature and Culture it is almost the opposite. If we could create this effect we would see a hundred years of change within the building itself with its architecture maintaining our frame of reference.
The second instance of immediate endearment of this work came on page 5. “This way of studying the history of museums firmly links them to other spaces for collecting an display including zoos and menageries, even when curators were seeking to distinguish museums from such tawdry places” (5–emphasis mine). My first masters thesis, The People’s Zoo: William M. Mann, The National Zoo, and the Birth of American Wildlife Conservation, 1889-1960 (linked to proquest PDF), covered William Mann’s collecting for the National Zoo. I cannot describe the feeling you get when your past work comes back around to provide solid foundation for things that you have yet done. An added bonus was the records of the National Zoo. Since the zoo comes under the Smithsonian umbrella, much of the zoo’s official accounts and reports were recorded in yearly federal reports. The years of work within the federal records has also set me up nicely to work with the WPA records that will form the end of my dissertation on collecting.
The analysis of objects in this text pulls in my work on my second thesis The Gilded Skull in England’s Closet: Displaying Human Evolution at the American Museum of Natural History (which has yet to even make it to proquest or the library despite being deposited almost a year ago–it really is amazing that Lamar University has a more streamlined thesis process and binding options than the University of Oklahoma, but that is another issue) which covered the Piltdown Skull as an object with its own history and own biography. In this handy little book I have an incredible connection between my work done at Lamar University in Texas and the more recent years I have spent here. That fact alone serves to raise this book on my favorites list.
Alberti’s brief nod at the hunters as collectors rounds out the trilogy of points I would like to make. Those that were doing the collecting are generally left out of the equation that begins with the preparation of specimens. While Manchester had less active patron-hunters than either the American Museum of Natural History or the Smithsonian, that Alberti mentions their importance reveals much. To be fair, one of the most famous/infamous of the hunters for the American Museum and Smithsonian was none other than Theodore Roosevelt. There are examples of the friction between hunters and scientists in Britain however, most notably in the recent book Between Man and Beast (Doubleday, 2013). Monte Reel follows the story of Paul Du Chaillu, his gorilla hunting, and Richard Owen needing the specimen to make his point.
Museum history is one of those topics that require a more diverse “toolkit” to adequately understand. Alberti’s work should be part of any course that looks at museums, collecting, or objects. I would say that includes the early speaking tours that had specimens in tow. It should also be required text for almost any Museum Studies course. That it is a single museum that Alberti covers, is not as much of a weakness as one would think. It serves as an almost perfect case study to replicate with any other similar institution–and most of them are much more similar than they are different. Even with its peculiarity of being a British establishment, it will serve as a model for the museums here in the states. What makes it more difficult is, like baseball, the big museums in the US are separated by league–the American Museum of Natural History and the (National League) Smithsonian. There are many-many-more that will follow an almost identical curve of existence (adjusted only slightly for chronology) as the Manchester Museum, and Alberti has provided us all with the most efficient way to understand them in their entirety, as much as that is possible.