Ethnographic museums as anthropological laboratories
Han F. Vermeulen
(Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology)
Paper short abstract:
Early ethnographic collections functioned as anthropological laboratories before anthropology came of age. Founding fathers like Tylor and Boas also worked on material culture in Oxford and Berlin. What role did early ethnographic museums play in the formation of anthropology?
Paper long abstract:
The history of anthropology is increasingly being divided in two stages: before and after Malinowski invented participant observation. The emphasis on long-term fieldwork is so strong that anthropology prior to 1918 is fading in the distance. Morgan, Tylor, Frazer and Boas have credit, but hardly play a role in current discussions. This has undesired consequences for a realistic view on the development of anthropology. Morgan and Tylor designed methods for arranging and evaluating data within their evolutionist frameworks, and this also holds for Boas and the anti-racial, relativist anthropology he developed. During large-scale research expeditions of the eighteenth century discussed in Before Boas (2015), the main data collection was by empirical observation and the interviewing of key informants. Of added importance was the acquisition of material culture, which was studied within collections that grew into ethnographic museums during the nineteenth century. Examples of ethnographic collection analysis include the Kunstkamera in St. Petersburg (founded in 1714 and renamed Ethnographic Museum in 1836), the Academic Museum of Goettingen, which from the 1780s on held important collections from the Pacific and Siberia, and the private collections of Gustav Klemm that formed the basis of the Museum of Ethnology founded at Leipzig in 1869-70. Tylor and Boas also worked on ethnographic collections and reached valuable insights by studying artefacts. The role of ethnographic museums in the creation of anthropology may have been more limited than that of learned societies, but in its early stages it was key, next to fieldwork.
The role of learned societies and associations in the creation and building of European anthropology [History of Anthropology Network]