restricted access 2 Commercializing the Ethnographic Frontier
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CHAPTER 2 Commercializing the Ethnographic Frontier F elix von Luschan’s attempt to engage the commercial frontier in German New Guinea for the purposes of his African and Oceanic division at the Berlin Ethnological Museum had ample precedent. Luschan was not alone in realizing that, along with the evangelical sector, commercial agents had penetrated the very regions deemed interesting by German anthropologists. Yet enlisting such agents was not without its problems . While on the surface commercialism and ethnography were not mutually exclusive, commercial agents sought to capitalize on the renewed interest in indigenous artifacts. CONCEPTUAL TENSIONS IN MATERIAL CULTURE: ETHNOGRAPHICA AND COMMODITIES There has been a close historical relationship between commerce and ethnography . In recent years estimated values for artifacts from Hawai‘i, New Guinea, or Tonga, especially if produced before European contact, have rivaled those for works of Western artists. This was hardly the case during the nineteenth century, but even at that time the conceptual tensions between scientific and commercial understandings of material cultural had had a long history. Indeed, a concern with “things foreign,” Mary Helms argues, was not an exclusively European phenomenon. In her survey of world cultures, Helms asserts that travelers returning with “precious” materials from abroad have enjoyed increased admiration and status.1 For Europeans, the introduction of objects from other cultures increased scientific curiosity and ultimately commercial possibilities. While foreign artifacts intrigued Europeans before the age of expansion , the number of cross-cultural encounters increased markedly after the fifteenth century. These contacts filled the curiosity cabinets of European monarchs and noblemen with objects from exotic places. The influx of foreign materials coincided with shifting European values. The Renaissance “episteme,” Michel Foucault argues, recognized similarities among 29 things formerly regarded as particular or remarkable.2 While the European engagement in classifying foreign objects started early in the metropole, on the periphery the notion of “oddity” or “curiosity” lingered well into the nineteenth century.Labeling an artifact a curiosity,Bernard Smith contends, expressed“an interest without passing aesthetic judgment.”3 I would add that besides a lack of aesthetic judgment, “curiosity” also connotes the absence of classification. Yet the interest, amazement, or wonder that led to the collecting of objects was not as innocent as one might initially assume. Stephen Greenblatt, for instance, argues that wonder and amazement were central components of the European discourse of discovery; cognitive processes deeply intertwined with emerging systems of representation along edges of constantly expanding overseas horizons. Wonder, according to Greenblatt, became the very conceptual tool through which Europeans filtered their perceptions, linking an expanding Western metropole with an ever-shrinking non-Western periphery. During the late Middle Ages “wonder” shook the reigning intellectual paradigms, but during the Renaissance “wonder” became an essential element of Europeans’ physical and intellectual appropriation of the world, a discursive instrument of possession.4 “Curiosities,” the physical evidence of wonder, troubled Europe’s intellectual landscape.5 Three new approaches emerged to assign meaning to exotic artifacts. The first, labeled “narrative perspective,” allowed objects to stand for memories of particular experiences, events, or people. “Curiosities ,” in a narrow sense, fell under this category, marking specific encounters during voyages of discovery and exploration. The second, more utilitarian perspective, evaluated objects in terms of their expected economic return. “Commodities” fit into this category. The third, more systematic approach placed collected objects within a classification taxonomy and among other things created the category “ethnographica.”6 These three approaches were not clear-cut, and tensions existed among them, as illustrated by James Cook’s voyages to the Pacific Ocean in the second half of the eighteenth century. Although shaped by the Enlightenment, the conceptual tools available to the late-eighteenth-century naturalists who sailed with Cook had changed little since the Renaissance. Distinguishing indigenous cultural artifacts from flora and fauna still followed the rigid separation of artificialia and naturalia prescribed by Renaissance humanists.7 Naturalia referred to new specimens of plant and animal life that did not fit readily available European categories, while artificialia, as the name indicated, denoted “artificial” or human-made objects. The gap between “artificial” and “natural” further widened in 1735 with the publication of Swedish naturalist Carl Linne’s (a.k.a. Linnaeus) Systema Naturae. Linnaeus’ system 30 Chapter 2 classified plants by reproductive apparatus and created a taxonomy that accommodated the new plant types encountered during Cook’s voyages. With regard to plants, the Linnean system was a major step in Europe’s development of global concepts, what Mary Louise Pratt calls a “planetary...


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