In a wonderful culmination of the past 2 years of Field Notes at Cambridge, we welcomed Professor Dr. Marianne Sommer (Lucerne) and Professor Jim Secord (HPS Cambridge), to hear Prof. Sommer’s paper on ‘Paper Trails: Objects, Narratives, and Visualizations of Human Deep Time in Early 20th Century America‘ discussing how knowledge about prehistory was interactively generated and circulated both in terms of its discursivity and mediality under the direction of Henry Fairfield Osborn, curator (1891) and later president (1908-33) at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Prof. Sommer presented the case study of the Museum of Natural History, arguing that “paper trails” of the production and circulation of ‘human deep time’ in America was framed by objects, narratives, and various actors that “staged” a view of prehistory in a combination of scientific and theatrical techniques that continues to resonate in the present. Drawing upon Osborn’s extensive archive (and correspondence), she showed how the Museum President’s goal to build a paleontological department reflected contemporary trends towards professionalisation within the university, as well as drawing upon less formal networks of local social clubs and societies to produce the halls of paleontology at the Museum that depicted images of America’s deep history through fossil artefacts, mounted specimens, and murals.
Though lacking in specimens of early hominids, American curators and paleontologists funded expeditions to south east Asia to gather new objects, prompting conflict with Chinese imperial authorities over the rights to remains viewed as national heritage on the one hand, and natural objects on the other. American finds such as a supposedly ‘human’ tooth were touted as the ‘missing link’ in human evolution, discoveries that were likened to the excitement of sporting events or striking gold in the contemporary press (although as it turned out, the tooth in question belonged to an ancient pig and not an ancestor of Homo sapiens). Moving from objects to visual culture, Prof. Sommer demonstrated how Museum employees ‘revolusionised’ fossil reconstruction in mounted examples of ancient vertebrates, as well as full busts of hominid ancestors and the famous murals designed and executed by Charles R. Knight with Osborn’s extensive input. Completed in 1922, these murals purported to explain the loss of life during the Pleistocene era, producing familiar aesthetic motifs that translated into popular works such as ‘The Land That Time Forgot‘ by Edgar Rice Burroughs that, arguably, continue to characterise our conceptions of the prehistoric environment today. The combination of object, visual, and discursive evidence presented by Osborn at the Museum created a spatial dynamic of human evolution in which visitors could ‘walk’ through rooms marking the progress of life on earth, from reptiles to mammals to men.
Professor Secord refined the focus of Paper Trails to broader methodological and historical concerns, drawing upon his own work on the Crystal Palace at Sydenham. He encouraged historians to refine our concept of ‘circulation‘, noting that the idea of objects-in-transit is more precisely expressed in German, prompting a different engagement with the process of epistemological transformation (when does ‘knowledge’ become ‘scientific knowledge’?). He suggested that an alternate framing of the same evidence might prompt a very different reading of the material, observing that using communicative processes as a central analytic category — tracing the imperial vs. global translation of objects, or how information gathered at a field site is visually represented and translated onto a notebook page, might help us better understand the intangible and later tangible stages of construction / reconstruction, iterative processes that produce knowledge. Overtly focusing on ‘great men’ or the individuals behind such ‘productions’, like Osborn, might too strongly frame our own historical narratives. Prof. Secord suggested thinking about the same period in the Museum’s history as part of New York’s rise as an intellectual centre in the late 19th century, or how the Gilded Age‘s increased interest in early American history is inextricably tied to the expansion of Manhattan and the introduction of the new metro system, which quite literally put the museum on the map. Peter Mandler observed that this history of American prehistory cannot be understood without reference to the concept of spectacle (how is information transformed from it’s depiction in the museum to society & culture outside the institutional boundaries of the former?), memento mori, and the Great Chain of Being.
Overall, the seminar prompted a long conversation regarding objects in transit, the ability to write quite different histories based on slight differences in analytic frameworks applied, and how historians of archaeology and anthropology might interpret the material evidence of the archive to produce histories that are not asymmetrical but address the widely divergent, discursive lives of objects and texts after their nascent moment of production. We thank all those who attended for an inspiring and lively seminar to end the year!
~ The Field Notes Team