The project Scientific Collections on the Move: Provincial Museums, Archives, and Collecting Practices (1850–1950) studies the history of scientific collections in palaeontology, anthropology, botany and related applied sciences. Drawing on the most recent historiography of science and scientific collections, the project shifts focus from major to smaller museums in order to demonstrate a more complex, less centralised and less hierarchical, vision of international scientific exchanges. As a result, SciCoMove will provide a more accurate account of the many dimensions of science collecting practices and multilateral contacts between Europe and Latin America. The generated knowledge will enable museums to better respond to social demands, including repatriation, and scientists to make better use of historical collections in their research.

Our project promotes international, interdisciplinary, and intersectoral collaborations between historians of science, scientists, and museum professionals from nine countries in Latin America and Europe with a view to trace the history of scientific collections. In line with its objective to better account for the multiple dimensions of science collections and for multilateral interchange between Europe and Latin America, SciCoMove encourages collaborations on equal terms between Latin American and European teams.

Our project is based on:

1 – the shift of focus from major to smaller museums in the “provinces” or “peripheries” in order to outline a more complex, less centralized, and less hierarchical vision of scientific exchanges;

2 – a conception of collections as nodes in networks of circulation and as structures producing knowledge, rather than as heritage and conservation institutions;

3 – an ambition to better connect the collections’ archives with the objects exhibited or conserved and provide a wider historical and social meaning to these objects.

4 – attention to objects “on the move” and to the scholarly practices and sociability of the agents (collectors, brokers, amateurs) who made these moves possible.

Glyptodon from Museo Público Buenos Aires (1864)

To shed light on how museum collections were constructed and how objects arrived to the places where they are stored now, we take into consideration the economy of collections and museums and multiple “ethnic”, national, professional, religious, and linguistic networks that connected the “provincial” collectors in the first place. By unveiling those layers, our team will generate innovative ideas for exhibition and conservation.

Moreover, we intend to show that these connections were not necessarily organized around either the European metropolises, states and cities or their respective national museums, and to develop a more decentralized perspective on those collections and collectors. One aim of SciCoMove is to highlight the dense networks of South-South, South-province, or province-province, exchanges generated by travelling scientific specimens or data, and by the people who collected, gathered or brokered them.

By looking specifically at collections “on the move”, SciCoMove will highlight how artefacts, plants and substances came in, but also out of museums. The many ways in which the collections where gathered, displayed, used and eventually dispersed, also challenge the definition of science museums as non-profit organizations aimed primarily at the diffusion of knowledge. The economic dimension of collecting and dealing, as well as the pragmatic aspects of collections gathered for the promotion of economic and political activities, will be one of SciCoMove focus.

Gabinete Salvador, Barcelona

The project is restricted in three ways:

A – chronologically, it is focused on the 1800–1950 time frame. This period witnessed the consolidation of modern Western nation-states and the rise and disruption of modern colonial empires. In relation to these political, economic, and social processes, the period saw the birth of the modern museum, and the rise of large specialized science collections and museums organized along new rational, political and pedagogical agendas.

B – in terms of disciplines, it focuses on scientific collections in botany, palaeontology, and anthropology. Plants, fossils, human bones and “antiquities” (which included ethnographic artefacts) circulated easily and widely in the last two centuries. New scientific fields emerged, or old ones where deeply transformed due to this very circulation. These collections had scientific but also, in most cases, applied science dimensions: botany was closely related to horticulture and pomology, to entomology and pest control and to pharmacy. Until World War II, some collections were linked to commercial geography and missiology. Others had educational aims.

C – geographically SciCoMove focuses on Europe and Latin America. Since 1800, and before Africa became the main provider of specimens for many Western institutions (after the 1884 Berlin Conference), the circulation of data, specimens and people was particularly intense between those geographical entities. Around 1800, Humboldt and Bonpland, followed by many other traveler-naturalists including Darwin, drew the attention of Western scientists to the riches of nature in the southern and central parts of America. At the same time, this part of the world entered its postcolonial era: new nations were built as well as new museums reflecting new national aspirations in a shifting geopolitical landscape. Also during this period, new economic opportunities opened for European migrants looking for fortune or for political asylum. The key importance of agricultural products for local markets and for exportation towards Europe and North America turned tropical botany, horticulture, and pest control into shared major issues. However, this project does not fall within the field of “area studies”. We follow Soto Laveaga and Gómez’s perspective and consider the Latin American/European “provincial” spaces as connected areas of a network opened to multi-sided exchanges and connections from all over the world.

The overall methodology of the project is based on the material analysis of objects combined with the analysis of archives recording their circulation, dispersion, exchange, and application. In order to do so, SciCoMove articulates several case studies, carried out individually or by several members of the team, and workshops around cross-cutting themes that these case studies will help to explore. Two training seminars (summer schools) will be organized and will use the case studies as their material and the cross-cutting themes as their main themes.