Monthly Archives: January 2022

Scientific police: an example of the technological transfer between the two sides of the Atlantic

By Silvano Montaldo, Cesare Lombroso Museum of Criminal Anthropology, University of Turin

The circulation of the technical knowledge of the scientific police is an example of the technological transfer between the two sides of the Atlantic, and of the existing tensions in the field of positivist criminology. The important body of letters received by Juan Vucetich (La Plata, Museo Policial) from European correspondents is an eloquent demonstration of this. His personal identification system, which replaced Bertillon’s anthropometric measurements with the collection of fingerprints, was adopted by the Italian forensic police after it spread to Latin America. In this process, what was weakened was the anthropological perspective of Lombrosian criminology, with its baggage of signs of degeneration and atavism, while a new perspective of institutionalization of scientific knowledge by the state was opening up.

An iridescent pendant made with beetle’s elytra

By Adriana E. MarvaldiCONICET/División Entomología del Museo de La Plata, Argentina

The beetles, insects of the Order Coleoptera, are distinguished by the presence of elytra. This is the fundamental feature that defines the largest and most diverse group of animals on Earth (Lawrence and Newton 1982). The elytra (singular, elytron) are the hardened, sclerotized fore wings, evolutionarily modified as a protective case that covers the hind wings (those used to fly) and dorsum of the abdomen when at rest. The beetles and their elytra come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, textures, and colors. Many species of beetles, from several different families, look like jewels because of their iridescent structural colors, a visual phenomenon resulting from the interaction of light with the nanostructures of the integument that changes color according to the viewing angle (Seago et al. 2009; Saranathan et al. 2015). No wonder that in so many cultures, of all times and all around the world, iridescent beetles and their parts are integrated into ornaments full of beauty and symbolism.

For an entomologist, with a special interest in beetles, a set of dozens of sparkling, green elytra assembled into a strip immediately catches the eye. An object like this was noticed, rather unexpectedly, leaning on a shelf of the archaeological-ethnographic collection of the Americas at BASA-Museum of Bonn. The cultural and natural environments from which it comes were intriguing and to figure them out would require some research. At first sight, it had no tag attached, but a closer look revealed the inventory information written in the underside of one elytron (BASA Inv.-No. 5724). In the Museum´s inventory Book the number led to a succinct description of the object: “Ketteanhänger aus Insekten Panzern mit Federn (rot/gelb) am Ende” [Chain pendant made of insect armor with feathers (red/yellow) at the end]. In the last column, the object is attributed, with doubts, to the collection “Jankausky (?)”.

Located on another shelf, a few steps away from the drawer holding the pendant made of beetle’s elytra, there it was an entire beetle exemplar, exhibited as an object with an inventory tag attached to one of its legs (BASA Inv. –No. Hm35). A giant insect of more than 60 mm long and 25 mm wide, with iridescent integument showing hues from green to purple particularly in the elytra. Its shape and general aspect indicated with certainty its membership to the Buprestids, a family of Coleoptera which are commonly called “jewel beetles”. Observation of additional details suggests it is the species Euchroma gigantean (Linnaeus), a wood borer beetle inhabiting the Neotropical rain forests, and considered the largest buprestid of South America. Without further collection data, a direct link of this “object” with the previous one could not be established. But it was tempting to do an association because, as it will be explained later, beetles of this species are among the main sources of the gleaming elements that people from the Amazonian lowlands use to create ornaments.

The characteristics observed in object No. 5724 indicate it is one of the typical ear pendants made by the Jivaroan people (e.g., Shuar and Achuar) from the Amazon lowlands between Ecuador and Peru (Rivers 2003; AMNH 2017). People from the Amazon Basin are known for their variety of personal ornaments that they wear for special occasions, made with materials taken from their natural environment, like colorful bird feathers, little stones, seeds, plant fibers, and iridescent beetle elytra. The wing covers (elytra) of two different beetles have been documented to be used in the elaboration of their ornaments: Euchroma gigantean (Linnaeus) from the family Buprestidae and Chrysophora chysochlora (Latreille) from the Scarabaeidae. In object No. 5724 from BASA, the elytra from its upper part are longitudinally striate, greenish shimmering purple and gold, and longer and more flat than the elytra strung on the rest of the pendant, which are shorter, apically more curved, and strikingly sparkling green colored with a thickly punctuated texture. The former elytra are most likely from buprestids, and the latter, from scarabs.

This was a short story about a lucky day for a coleopterist visiting an ethnographic collection. In the end, it looks like the elytra are meant to provide beauty and protection, not only to the beetles.


AMNH. 2017. Beetle-Wing Body Art: Shuar Ear Ornaments.

Lawrence, J F & Newton, Jr. AF. 1982. Evolution and Classification of Beetles. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 13 (1): 261-290.

Rivers, VZ. 2003. Emeralds on wings: Jewel beetles in textiles and adornment. Pp. 163-174. In Motte-Florace, E. and Thomas, J. M. C. (Eds.) Les ‘insectes’ dans la tradition orale/ Insects in oral literature and traditions. Paris: Peeters.

Saranathan V, Seago AE, Sandy A, Narayanan S, Mochrie SGJ, Dufresne ER, Cao H, Osuji CO, Prum RO. 2015. Structural diversity of arthropod biophotonic nanostructures spans amphiphilic phase-space. Nano Lett. 15, 3735-3742 (doi:10.1021/acs.nanolett.5b00201).

Seago AE, Brady P, Vigneron J-P, Schultz TD. 2009. Gold bugs and beyond: a review of iridescence and structural colour mechanisms in beetles (Coleoptera). J. R. Soc. Interface 6, S165-S184 (doi:10.1098/rsif.2008.0354.focus).

Irina Podgorny, Silvano Montaldo and Nathalie Richard at the museums of Luján

On 10 December 2021, the three researchers went to present SciCoMove at the Historical Museum and the Ameghino House in Luján.

The Complejo Museográfico Provincial Enrique Udaondo incorporates the Museo Colonial e Histórico, which has a very interesting history. Founded by Enrique Udaondo (1880–1962) in 1918, this museum grew out of the transformation of its founder’s private collection into a public one; later its collections have been expanded through numerous donations and purchases of other private collections gathered by national history amateurs. Udaondo himself is quite a representative of amateur scholars, who collected the past often in a troubled political context and with partisan intentions. Belonging to the conservative circles, he collected traces of Argentina’s “colonial” past and did not radically oppose this past to the history of Argentina after its independence (María Elida Blasco, Un museo para la colonia. El Museo Histórico y Colonial de Luján, Rosario, Prohistoria ediciones, 2011). This scholar can be compared to his French counterparts who collected traces of France’s pre-revolutionary past after 1789 and whose private collections often enriched national or local public museums, such as the Musée Carnavalet in Paris (see Tom Stammers, The Purchase of the Past: Collecting Culture in Post-Revolutionary Paris c.1790–1890, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2020). Exchanges with the museum’s management team were very productive and allowed to widen the reach of the SciCoMove project. The Historical Museum might be interested in the virtual exhibition prototype that will be produced at the end of the project, as well as in the MOOC for its staff.

From left to right: Mauricio Cano, Viviana Melloni de Mallol, Irina Podgorny, Nathalie Richard and Silvano Montaldo

Luján is also the city where the family of the naturalist Florentino Ameghino (1853–1911), coming from Italy, settled when he was still an infant. This paleontologist, author of a theory that made Argentina the cradle of the human species, was transformed into an Argentine national hero (Irina Podgorny, “Florentino Ameghino entre Luján et Moscou (1911–1954)”, Revue d’histoire des sciences humaines, 36/2020, 79-102,; Irina Podgorny, Florentino Ameghino y Hermanos, Buenos Aires, Edhasa, 2021). His family home has become a small museum. The SciCoMove researchers met the museum team, and Irina Podgorny and Nathalie Richard were interviewed for a video dedicated to Ameghino on the city’s website. This visit was an opportunity to present the SciCoMove project and the local press reported on it.

Irina Podgorny at the Maison Ameghino

Irina Podgorny, Silvano Montaldo et Nathalie Richard aux musées de Luján

Le 10 décembre, les trois chercheurs sont allés présenter SciCoMove au Musée historique et à la Maison Ameghino de Luján.

De gauche à droite : Mauricio Cano, Viviana Melloni de Mallol, Irina Podgorny, Nathalie Richard et Silvano Montaldo

Le Complejo Museográfico Provincial Enrique Udaondo intègre un Museo Colonial e Histórico dont l’histoire est très intéressante. Fondé par Enrique Udaondo (1880-1962) en 1918, ce musée historique est issu de la transformation de la collection privée de son fondateur en collection publique et ses collections se sont accrues grâce à de nombreux dons ou achats de collections privées rassemblées par des amateurs d’histoire nationale. Udaondo lui-même est tout à fait représentation des érudits amateurs, qui collectionnent le passé, souvent dans un contexte politique troublé et avec des intentions partisanes. Appartenant aux milieux conservateurs, il collectionne les traces du passé « colonial » de l’Argentine et n’oppose pas radicalement ce passé à l’histoire de l’Argentine après son indépendance (María Elida Blasco, Un museo para la colonia. El Museo Histórico y Colonial de Luján, Rosario, Prohistoria ediciones, 2011). Cet érudit conservateur peut être comparés à ceux qui, en France, ont collecté les traces du passé prérévolutionnaire après 1789 et dont les collections privées sont venues enrichir souvent les musées publics nationaux ou locaux, tel le Musée Carnavalet à Paris (voir Tom Stammers, The Purchase of the Past: Collecting Culture in Post-Revolutionary Paris c. 1790–1890, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2020). Les échanges avec l’équipe de direction du Musée ont été très enrichissant et ont permis de faire connaître SciCoMove à ce musée qui pourrait être intéressé par le prototype d’exposition virtuelle qui sera produit en fin de projet, et par le Mooc pour son personnel.

Luján est aussi la ville où la famille du naturaliste Florentino Ameghino (1853-1911), venue d’Italie, s’est établie alors qu’il était encore un nourrisson. Ce paléontologue, auteur d’une théorie qui fait de l’Argentine le berceau de l’espèce humaine, a été érigé en héros national argentin (Irina Podgorny, « Florentino Ameghino entre Luján et Moscou (1911-1954) », Revue d’histoire des sciences humaines [En ligne], 36 | 2020, 79-102, ; Florentino Ameghino y Hermanos, Buenos Aires, Edhasa, 2021). Sa maison famille a été transformée en petit musée. Les chercheurs du projet ont été reçu par l’équipe en charge de cette structure, et Irina Podgorny et Nathalie Richard ont été interviewées afin d’intégrer leurs propos dans une vidéo consacrée à Ameghino qui sera valorisée sur le site de la ville. Cette visite a été l’occasion de présenter le projet SciCoMove et la presse locale en a rendu compte.

Irina Podgorny à la Maison Ameghino

Traveling skulls. About some skulls and casts from France kept in the storerooms of the Museum of La Plata

By Nathalie Richard, Le Mans Université

The historiography of science museums has mostly emphasized the circulation of specimens from the Souths to the Nords or from the peripheries to the centres. The skulls and casts kept in the collections of the anthropology section of the Museum of La Plata (Argentina) tell a more intricate story.

Certainly, many specimens related to the history of physical anthropology were collected in Argentina and sent to museums in the Western world, for example to the Natural History Museum in Paris or to the Anthropology Society of Paris. But other specimens traveled in the other direction. The catalogue of the anthropology section of the Museum of La Plata, compiled by the director of this section, Robert Lehmann-Nitsche, in 1911, demonstrates this, as well as specimens currently kept in the reserves.

Among these specimens from Europe, many belonged to the collection of Francisco Pascasio Moreno (1852-1919), a wealthy amateur who had built an important collection, kept in a family estate. He donated this collection to the Province of Buenos Aires, allowing the foundation, in 1878, of the Anthropological and Archaeological Museum of the Province, of which he was appointed curator. Moreno travelled to Paris in 1880-1881, where he continued his anthropological research and strengthened his contacts with French scholars, for example with Paul Broca (1824-1880). The Société d’anthropologie de Paris (1859), of which he was the founder, was then an important center for Western physical anthropology. The methods, models of interpretation and practices it promoted served as an inspiration for the creation of many similar associations in Europe and North America. Back in Argentina, Moreno devoted his efforts to the creation of a national museum of which his anthropological museum would be the core. This project failed, and another museum in the city of Buenos Aires became the national museum, but Moreno’s efforts led to the foundation of the Provincial Museum of La Plata, which was gradually established from 1884 onwards in the new provincial capital, where his collections were transferred (see bibliography).

These collections reflected Moreno’s scholarly explorations in Argentina, but also his contacts with scientists and merchants, both locally and abroad. It is thus not surprising that the anthropological series gathered by Moreno contained not only American but also French and European remains. Paul Broca, the Society and its Laboratory of Anthropology founded in 1867 were important providers. Thus, the Museum of La Plata now possesses, among others, original French skulls from the 17th century collected by Broca in Parisian cemeteries.

Fig. 1. Photograph by Nathalie Richard.

Among the skulls from France kept at the La Plata Museum, some have traveled more than others, since they have crossed the Atlantic twice. This is the case, for example, of the skull numbered 1760 in the 1911 catalog (Fig. 1). This cast from the Museum of Natural History in Paris demonstrates the existence of exchanges in both directions between La Plata and Paris (also Lyon, since some series came from the Museum of Natural History in that city). It is an outcome of the relationship established between Moreno and the professor of anthropology of the Paris Museum, Armand de Quatrefages. In 1874, the former sent five skulls to Paris. In return, Quatrefages sent him twelve casts of American busts and skulls (from the north and south) taken from the Parisian collections for his collection, which was still private at that time (Farro 2009). This skull bears an inscription that tells more about its history: “Skull of the ancient inhabitants of the coasts of Peru found in the huacas or tombs of the ruins of the temple of Pachacamac, situated 6 leagues south of Lima – given by Mr. J. Deville”. This important site was excavated in a more systematic way from the end of the 19th century onward, but it was explored by curious and collectors well before this date. In France for example, Joseph Dombey brought back an important collection of ethnographic and archaeological objects of Peru, for part coming from this site in 1785, and gave it to the Royal Cabinet in 1786. From this time on, a somewhat imprecise geographical area called “Peru”, associated with a somewhat vague “Inca” civilization, became an object of curiosity and covetousness among French amateurs of archaeology and from institutions. Numerous objects from this region thus entered private and public collections, through the agency of scholars, often commissioned by institutions, but also through soldiers and merchants (Riviale, 1996). The skull #1760 is the result of this history, while the arrival of its cast in Argentina is related to the will of the Argentinian amateur Moreno to establish his reputation and a dialogue with more famous professional European scholars. Later the transfer of the cast from the private collection to the public museum was the result of Moreno’s strategy to establish his influence on the natural, archaeological and ethnographic sciences in Argentina through the foundation of a museum that would be under his control.

Thus, the French skulls preserved in the Museum of La Plata tell us of connections between scholars, of histories of private and public collections, and of strategies of distinction and reputation based on these collections (for a comparison, Corsi 2008). They also point to a common territory in which scientific methods (anthropometry) and theoretical interpretative frameworks were shared, that of the physical anthropology of the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century. This anthropology, for which Paris was one of the main centers, used “race” as its central concept and considered skulls to be the most important part of the skeleton for assessing anatomical differences between human groups. Based on the identification of what they called “racial types”, the scientists of the time reconstructed the population histories of the various regions of the globe, including the Americas. Moreno, his collections, and later the collections of the Museum of La Plata, participated in this common space in which specimens circulated as much as ideas, and in both directions.

Selected bibliography

Pietro Corsi, Fossils and Reputations. A Scientific Correspondence: Pisa, Paris, London, 1853–1857, Pisa, Edizioni Plus – Pisa University Press, 2008.

Máximo Farro, La formación del Museo de La Plata. Coleccionistas, comerciantes, estudiosos y naturalistas viajeros a nes del siglo XIX, Rosario, Prohistoria, 2009.

Irina Podgorny, “Du Musée au Panthéon en Argentine. Le destin des collections anthropologiques dans l’Argentine contemporaine », Politika, 2019,

Irina Podgorny, Margaret Lopes, El desierto en una vitrina. Museos e historia natural en la Argentina, Mexico, Limusa, 2008 (2e éd., Rosario, Prohistoria, 2014)

Pascal Riviale, Un siècle d’archéologie française au Pérou (1821-1914), Paris, L’Harmattan, 1996 (traduction espagnole, ).

Des crânes voyageurs. A propos de quelques crânes et moulages venus de France conservés dans les réserves du Musée de La Plata

Par Nathalie Richard, Le Mans Université

L’historiographie des musées de sciences a surtout mis en exergue le mouvement des spécimens des suds vers les nords ou des périphéries vers les centres. Les crânes et moulages conservés dans les collections de la section d’anthropologie du Musée de La Plata (Argentine) racontent une histoire plus complexe.

Certes de nombreux spécimens liés à l’histoire de l’anthropologie physique ont été collectés en Argentine et ont été envoyés vers les musées du monde occidental, par exemple au Muséum d’histoire naturelle de Paris ou à la Société d’anthropologie de Paris. Mais d’autres spécimens ont voyagé dans l’autre sens. Le catalogue de la section d’anthropologie du Musée de La Plata, rédigé par le directeur de cette section, Robert Lehmann-Nitsche, en 1911 le démontre, de même que des pièces actuellement conservées dans les réserves.

Parmi ces spécimens provenant d’Europe, plusieurs appartenaient à la collection de Francisco Pascasio Moreno (1852-1919), riche amateur qui avait réuni dans une propriété familiale une importante collection dont il fit don à la Province de Buenos Aires, permettant la fondation, en 1878, du Musée anthropologique et archéologique de la Province dont il fut nommé conservateur. Moreno effectua un séjour à Paris en 1880-1881, où il poursuivit ses recherches anthropologiques et renforça ses contacts avec des savants européens, par exemple avec Paul Broca (1824-1880). La Société d’anthropologie de Paris (1859), dont il était le fondateur, était alors un important foyer de l’anthropologie physique occidentale. Les méthodes, les types d’interprétation et les pratiques qu’elle promouvait servirent d’inspiration pour la création de nombreuses associations similaires en Europe et en Amérique du nord. De retour en Argentine Moreno consacra ses efforts à la création d’un musée national dont son musée anthropologique serait le noyau. Ce projet échoua, et un autre musée de la ville de Buenos Aires devint musée national, mais les efforts de Moreno aboutirent à la fondation du Musée provincial de La Plata, inauguré progressivement à partir de 1884 dans la nouvelle capitale provinciale, où ses collections furent transférées (voir bibliographie).

Ces collections étaient le reflet des prospections savantes de Moreno en Argentine, mais aussi de ses contacts avec des scientifiques et des marchands, localement et au-delà des frontières. Aussi n’est-il pas étonnant que les séries anthropologiques rassemblées par Moreno aient contenu des vestiges humains américains, mais aussi français et européens. Paul Broca, la Société et son Laboratoire d’anthropologie fondé en 1867 étaient des pourvoyeurs importants. Aussi le Musée de La Plata possède-t-il, parmi d’autres, des crânes français originaux du XVIIe siècle collectés par Broca dans les cimetières parisiens.

Fig. 1. Photograph by Nathalie Richard.

Parmi les crânes venus de France du Musée de La Plata, certains ont plus voyagé que les autres, puisqu’ils ont traversé deux fois l’Atlantique. Tel est le cas, parmi d’autre, du crâne numéroté 1760 dans le catalogue de 1911 (Fig. 1). Ce moulage issu du Museum d’histoire naturelle de Paris manifeste l’existence d’échanges dans les deux sens entre La Plata et Paris (et également Lyon puisque des séries proviennent du Muséum d’histoire naturelle de Lyon). Il est le produit de la relation établie entre Moreno et le professeur d’anthropologie du musée parisien, Armand de Quatrefages. En 1874, le premier envoie cinq crânes à Paris et en retour, Quatrefages lui adresse pour sa collection (qui est alors encore privée), douze moulages de bustes et de crânes américains (du nord et du sud) issus des collections parisiennes (voir Farro 2009). Ce crâne porte une inscription qui renseigne sur son histoire : « Crâne des anciens habitants des côtes du Pérou trouvé dans les huacas ou tombeaux des ruines du temple de Pachacamac à 6 lieues au sud de Lima – donné par M. J. Deville ». Ce site important a été fouillé de manière systématique à partir de la fin du XIXe siècle, mais il est exploré de manière ponctuelle par des curieux et des collectionneurs bien avant cette date. En France par exemple, Joseph Dombey a rapporté en 1785 une importante collection d’objets ethnographiques et archéologiques du Pérou, pour partie issus de ce site et donnés au Cabinet du roi en 1786. A partir de cette date, une zone géographique un peu imprécise appelée « Pérou », associée à la civilisation « Inca », fait l’objet de la curiosité et de la convoitise des amateurs français d’archéologie et des institutions. De nombreux objets de cette région arrivent ainsi dans des collections privées et publiques, par l’intermédiaire de savants, souvent missionnés par les institutions, mais aussi de militaires et de commerçants (Riviale, 1996). Le crâne numéro 1760 est le produit de cette histoire, tandis que l’arrivée de son moulage en Argentine est liée à la volonté de l’amateur argentin Moreno d’établir sa réputation et d’entrer en dialogue avec des savants professionnels européens plus reconnus que lui. Le transfert du moulage de la collection privée vers le musée public est quant à lui le résultat des stratégies de Moreno afin d’établir son influence sur les sciences naturelles, archéologiques et ethnographiques en Argentine grâce à la fondation d’un musée qui serait sous son contrôle.

Aussi les crânes français conservés au Musée de La Plata nous parlent-ils de contacts entre savants, de constructions de collections privées et publiques, de stratégie de prestige et de réputation fondées sur ces collections (pour une comparaison, voir Corsi 2008). Ils évoquent aussi un espace commun de méthodes scientifiques (l’anthropométrie) et de grilles d’interprétation théoriques, celui de l’anthropologie physique de la deuxième moitié du XIXe siècle et des premières décennies du XXe siècle. Cette anthropologie, dont Paris est l’un des premiers foyers, fait de la « race » son concept central et du crâne la partie du squelette la plus importante pour qualifier anatomiquement les différences entre les groupes humains. A partir de l’identification de ce qu’ils appellent des « types raciaux », les savants d’alors reconstruisent l’histoire du peuplement des diverses régions du globe, dont les Amériques. Moreno, ses collections, puis les collections du Musée de La Plata, participent de cet espace communs dans lequel les spécimens circulent autant que les idées, et ce dans les deux sens.

Bibliographie indicative

Pietro Corsi, Fossils and Reputations. A Scientific Correspondence: Pisa, Paris, London, 1853–1857, Pisa: Edizioni Plus – Pisa University Press, 2008.

Máximo Farro, La formación del Museo de La Plata. Coleccionistas, comerciantes, estudiosos y naturalistas viajeros a nes del siglo XIX, Rosario, Prohistoria, 2009.

Irina Podgorny, “Du Musée au Panthéon en Argentine. Le destin des collections anthropologiques dans l’Argentine contemporaine », Politika, 2019,

Irina Podgorny, Margaret Lopes, El desierto en una vitrina. Museos e historia natural en la Argentina, Mexico, Limusa, 2008 (2e éd., Rosario, Prohistoria, 2014)

Pascal Riviale, Un siècle d’archéologie française au Pérou (1821-1914), Paris, L’Harmattan, 1996 (traduction espagnole, ).