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  • Naturalists' Practices and Nature's Empire:Paris and the Platypus, 1815-18331
  • Richard W. Burkhardt Jr.

Among the multiple interactions between governments and museums that were so important for the growth of natural history in the nineteenth century, perhaps none looked more promising at its inception than did the special "school for naturalist voyagers" that was instituted at the Museum of Natural History in Paris in 1819. Proposed initially by the French Minister of the Interior, who also promised to fund the operation, the idea of the school was to train young naturalists who could then be sent off to the far corners of the globe in search of plants, animals, and minerals useful to France and interesting to science. The professors of the Museum were enthusiastic about the Minister's idea. However, aligning the interests of the naturalists at the Museum with those of the French government and a collection of young, aspiring naturalist voyagers was not an entirely straightforward matter. This paper considers the school for naturalist voyagers in the light of France's prior experiences with naturalist voyages (most notably the Baudin expedition to Australia), her most pressing colonial needs in the early years of the Restoration, and the practices of the naturalists of the Paris Museum. The platypus makes an appearance here amidst a contest over the control of specimens. Finally, we consider notions of "the empire of nature" and what resonance such notions might have had at the Paris Museum at the time the school for naturalists was promoted.

Napoleon's fall from power in 1814, reconfirmed by his final defeat in 1815, had multiple and diverse implications for the naturalists of the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris. One of these was that the naturalists would need to establish productive relations with a new French government. A second was that there would soon be representatives of other governments on the Museum's doorstep, calling for the restoration of natural history treasures that France had confiscated from their countries over the previous two decades. A third was that the Museum would have the opportunity to do something it had not been able to do for more than a decade. With the Napoleonic wars over and the freedom of the seas restored, the Museum would be able to send naturalist voyagers once again to the far corners of the globe.

All these prospects had an obvious bearing on the continued quality of the Museum's collections and the work of the naturalists located there. In this paper, I focus on the first and third of these stories, leaving aside the matter of the negotiations that took place over the possible repatriation of previously confiscated specimens. I address the specific ways in which, in the early years of the Restoration, the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and the French government sought to promote the activities of naturalist voyagers for the benefit of science and France alike.

Naturalists, Empire, and the Empire of Nature

Scholars in recent years have called attention to the ways in which science has functioned as a tool of empire (Brockway 1979, McKay 1985, Reingold and Rothenberg 1987, MacLeod [End Page 327] and Lewis 1988, MacLeod and Rehbock 1988, 1994, McClellan 1992, MacLeod 1993, 2000, Osborne 1994, Miller and Reill 1996, Drayton 2000). They have examined, among other things, how metropolitan "centers of accumulation" figured in these imperial enterprises (Latour 1987). But they have also noted occasions when, as Marie-Nöelle Bourguet has put it, "the interests of science and the interests of the empire did not go ... at the same pace" (Bourguet 1997:193). And they have likewise found that scientific activities on the periphery at times generated important new insights and practices and were not simply derivative of the theories and plans generated at imperial centers (Grove 1995, and others cited above).

In this paper I consider France's efforts during the Restoration to use natural historical knowledge for the development of her colonies. I also look at the Paris Museum of Natural History as a center of accumulation. One of my main points will be the heterogeneity of interests in play here. The interests of...