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  • The Ark and the Archive
  • Simon Schaffer (bio)

  . . . all discoveries jumbled from the flood,    Since first the leaky ark reposed in mud,    By more or less, are sung in every book,From Captain NOAH down to Captain COOK

—Byron, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, 1809, lines 347–50

Discoveries about the ark did not cease with the deluge. “Noah’s Ark must needs be made of some extraordinary timber and plank that could remain good after having been an hundred years in building, whereas our thirty new ships are some of them rotten within less than five”: so Samuel Pepys judged the apparent wonders of antediluvian wood, in comparison with the major shipbuilding program launched by the Royal Navy in the 1680s. The passage comes from his Naval Minutes, notes extracted over three decades by “making searches of all records” for a general history of the Navy.1 Pepys’s archival project convinced him the providential vessel had been preternaturally resistant to decay. Surviving public archives like those this naval administrator studied and assembled appeared as integral parts of early modern enterprises of state power and governmental performance. The aim here is to highlight the value of that scriptural craft as figure both of practical navigation and of goods’ cataloguing and maintenance, an association of pressing concern in the very epoch where global links and the fate of accumulation and display in exhibits and museums seemed newly troublesome.

When there’s a threat of a deluge, an ark’s a good place to find yourself. My very first experience behind the scenes at a museum was back in summer 1974, well over four decades ago, as an unpaid intern in the Navigation department of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. My [End Page 151] hosts and superiors were then Alan Stimson, veteran of the Blue Funnel Line turned astrolabe expert, and Christopher Terrell, former naval officer and maritime chart obsessive. Alan had me take a Polaroid camera around the maritime instrument collection, pasting instant and somewhat sticky photos of the sextants and mariners’ astrolabes onto catalogue cards. Christopher typically got me to make sure that every single sheet of Joseph Des Barres’ Atlantic Neptune (1774–1777), the great and costly colonial survey of the coasts from Newfoundland to New York, was in its proper order and easy of access. The two curators would later publish remarkable studies of these materials.2 I learnt fast how much of museum work was archival, and how much storage and classification mattered to the maintenance and use of these great maritime collections. Part of the aim of this paper, its concern with material techniques and labors of the classifier, is to insist on the pressing and indispensable interdependence of archives and of collections, especially when both are involved in exchanges across boundaries of mutual difficulty.

So it seems apt here to reflect slightly more broadly on how memories and maritime displays, arks and archives, perform their equivocal work. The unfortunate wordplay in this essay’s title exploits the homophony of the terms for the casket (L arca) in which rare and precious goods were stored, and for forms of rule (G archē), hence the office where state records were preserved. In his reflections on order of knowledge in the classical age of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, Michel Foucault’s confessedly “playful etymology” with archē prompted his archeology of the archive. The archive was to be seen as a set of relations of transformation and displacement, not so much traces somehow saved from the flood, but rather principles governing their retention and destruction. The proposal was to consider past facts of discourse not as documents but as what were to be understood as “monuments” to be excavated from diluvium. Stories of the Ark, it is suggested here, helped nourish these principles and guide techniques of memory and conservation, especially in moments of encounter with apparently exotic or ancient worlds where different archival regimes were in question.3 [End Page 152]

In what follows, some significant moments in the classical age are selected to bring out ways in which the Ark was used to place equivocal objects in their properly archival sequence within appropriate...


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pp. 151-182
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