- Collecting across Cultures: Material Exchanges in the Early Modern Atlantic World ed. by Daniela Bleichmar, Peter C. Mancall
Among the permanent exhibitions at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich are two titled “The Atlantic: Slavery, Trade, Empire” and “Traders: The East India Company and Asia.” Seemingly worlds (or at least oceans) apart, these two exhibits are on the same floor and but a short hallway apart. In a matter of seconds, visitors to the museum can seamlessly shift from immersion in the world of Atlantic-based exchange to an apparently separate one revolving around the Indian Ocean. Clever visitors will soon realize (if they did not know already) that these worlds were not separate at all, and that the proximity of the two exhibits in the museum’s floor plan mimics the historical connectivity of these ostensibly separate regions. In much the same way, Collecting across Cultures: Material Exchanges in the Early Modern [End Page 883] Atlantic World goes beyond the regional promise of its title to trace the deep global connections embedded within the history of early modern collecting. In this well-illustrated, finely edited volume, coeditors Daniela Bleichmar and Peter Mancall give readers the intellectual experiential equivalent of stepping across the hall between Atlantic and Indian Ocean exhibits in the National Maritime Museum. Bleichmar and Mancall, fellow professors at the University of Southern California, bring together fourteen fascinating essays that place the history of collecting in its proper cross-cultural and transoceanic context, weaving back and forth between places as far flung as Peru, England, and Java.
Famously, about a decade ago David Armitage wrote that “We are all Atlanticists now.”1 More and more, it seems, “We are all globalists now.” Or at least Atlanticists are often told that we should be so. In extending its geography beyond the confines of the Atlantic world suggested in the title, Collecting across Cultures fits neatly into current trends that call for expanding Atlantic world studies beyond the Atlantic to the Pacific, or indeed to the entire globe. Given the usefulness of regional confines for certain historical discussions, at times such calls can seem forced or even inappropriate. Readers of this compelling book will be convinced, however, that when it comes to the history of Atlantic world collecting, it is not only appropriate but also necessary to consider the region within a larger global context.
Bleichmar and Mancall bring together an interdisciplinary, international group of art historians, historians, and museum professionals whose scholarship reminds us that Africa, Asia, and the Americas were not only places that were sources of exotic objects and images for Europe; they also were loci of collecting themselves. Africans, Asians, Native Americans, and Europeans alike were avid collectors. The meanings assigned to things (and people) by collectors shifted as they moved them around the globe, evidence of what Daniela Bleichmar, in her persuasive opening essay, aptly categorizes as the “slippery” nature of objects and cultural exchange. Or, to put it more specifically, as captivating essays by art historian Sarah Benson and historian Robert Batchelor, respectively, remind us: in the seventeenth century, European scientific instruments were as exotic in the court of the King of Siam as a Javanese keris, or ceremonial knife, was in London. [End Page 884]
Readers might be less convinced by the book’s temporal expansiveness. Essays range from the early sixteenth to the latter half of the nineteenth century, and despite the very fine quality of the final two essays on the nineteenth century, readers might find being asked to stretch the temporal limits of the “early modern” period to the 1860s a bit discombobulating. For example, the final essay, by art historian Megan O’Neil, beautifully unpacks an album, Mexique, 1865, created by Louis Falconnet, a French officer stationed in Mexico during Emperor Maximilian’s occupation. Describing this collection as a “material record or cache of distilled memories” (p. 269), O’Neil raises valuable questions about differences between the personal souvenir and...