The final workshop of the ‘Universal Histories and Universal Museums’ project was held on 17th November at Université Paris Nanterre. Sandra Kemp, the project’s PI, opened the day introducing the project and the workshop’s themes.

She began by summarising the overarching aim of the project: to develop a comparative critique of approaches to universal histories in historiography and in museums between 1851 and 1914; and in particular to consider the shaping of historical narratives, taxonomies and epistemologies through objects and artefacts in museum collections.

She noted that the two previous workshops had focussed first on how the Loan Exhibition of Scientific Apparatus in 1876 prompted the creation of a permanent science collection in London and the development of scientific disciplines in the UK. The Loan Exhibition also contributed to the separation of the South Kensington Museum’s collections in two branches, science and art, and ultimately led to the emergence of two different institutions, the V&A and the Science Museum. The second workshop concentrated on the collections of the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro, which opened its doors in 1882, and focussed on the case studies based on works from Asia.

Professor Kemp observed that both these workshops explored the development of knowledge, ideas of history and universalities in light of:

  1. Transnational and geopolitical influences, including empire
  2. Pedagogy and the development of disciplines
  3. The public sphere

This third workshop aimed to explore the ways in which museums in cultural capitals created universalities and how these developed throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Bringing together researchers from both museum studies and history, we investigated definitions of ‘universalities’ in relation to contemporary developments in historiography, the philosophy of history and the history of disciplines. In particular, we were interested in using our object biographies to illuminate the ‘series of relationships surrounding objects, first on the way to the museum and then as part of the collection’ (Alberti 2005, pp.560-561). As Janet Hoskins (2005) noted, in tracing the evolution of the idea of cultural lives of things, objects biographies, and ideas of agency, ‘Objects themselves may not be animated, but their relations have certainly animated many debates about the ways to understand society, culture and human lives’ (Hoskins, 2005, p. 82).

The day was a tale of two halves: the morning session established contexts for understanding universalities; in the afternoon, we explored different models of metropolitan universalities in Europe and beyond.

The first two presentations focussed on travelling exhibitions and transnational loans as a means to consider definitions, conditions and contexts for metropolitan universalities. Robert Bud investigated the use of ‘spectacular exhibitions’ in Britain to promote science and develop scientific knowledge within and through collections and institutions. Bud charted the efforts of Norman Lockyer as he arranged the 1876 Loan Collection of Scientific Apparatus and the 1908 Franco-British exhibition, and campaigned for the British Science Guild. Throughout, Bud traced the role of French scientific institutions, as both guiding influences and potential rivals, upon British exhibitions. Staying within Britain, Kate Hill examined the creation of a Circulating Collection by the South Kensington Museum, lent to local art schools and museums. Hill uncovered the uneasy relationship between major museums in the capital and regional museums and the different kinds of knowledge that were associated with them: universal, transcendent knowledge was linked to the central, national and capital, while practical and particular knowledge was the provenance of the regional and local.

Chiara Zuanni, Research Fellow on the project, turned to the Manchester Museum to explore the effects of the industrial city upon object display and interpretation within the regional museum. Focussing on the impact of the transfer of the museum from Manchester Natural History Society to Owens College (now the University of Manchester), Zuanni traced the changing taxonomies underpinning the collection and exhibitions, from encyclopaedic values to the growth of subject-specialisms.

After lunch, the afternoon panel turned to a number of case studies to explore the broader evolution of such models across Europe and South America.

François Mairesse began the afternoon in fin-de-siecle Paris. Guiding us through the history of the cabinets of curiosity to the revolutionary museum to the universal exhibition, Mairesse charted the different ways Paris and France evoked the world. Examining displays by Parisian museums during the exposition universelle, Mairesse illustrated that these institutions presented a vision of the world to a transnational public which was defined by positioning France as a cultural epicentre of the world.

Irina Podgorny revisited the history of Argentine natural history museums in order to reassess critical perspectives which argue that these museums followed the institutional model of nineteenth-century European museums. Turning to the National Museum of Buenos Aires (1823) and the Museum of La Plata (1884), Podgorny uncovered an alternative history of institutional development. Natural history museums in South America, she argued, were influenced less by European models and instead by the demands of regional competition in the race towards becoming the most modern museum in the region.

In the final panel of the afternoon, Annette Loeseke and Paz Núñez-Regueiro examined a range of institutions to consider the histories and futures of metropolitan universalities within different European cultural capitals. Loeseke documented the changing historical landscape of Berlin’s Museum Island from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century to illuminate the relationship between historiography, museology and universality. Loeseke charted the changing ways the Altes Museum and Neues Museum have presented shifting narratives about their collections through exhibition displays. She brought this historical critique to bear upon the recent formulation of the Humbolt Forum, and its claim as a ‘centre of world culture’. Paz Núñez-Regueiro drew on his research into the Americas collections at the Musée de quai Branley to examine the ways in which curators ‘sketched the map and divided the world’ within French national museums. Núñez-Regueiro reflected upon the impact of the creation of borders upon the conceptualisation of American cultures by Europe.

After final discussions, Hervé Inglebert summarised the day’s main themes. One of the day’s underlying themes, emerging across all panels, was the role of competition in driving forward the creation of ‘knowledge’ and the development of metropolitan universalities. Whether tensions between local and capital forms of knowledge, between regional museums, or between institutions in different countries, forms of competition connects to both the development of cultural capitals (expansion of institutions and museums) and the creation of national and transnational cultural identities. Moreover, it appears that another defining characteristic of metropolitan universalities (both past and present) is a claim to represent global knowledge, be it a Parisian vision of the world in the Universal Exhibition of 1900, or the Humbolt Forum’s claims for a ‘centre of world culture’ in the twenty-first century. The remainder of Hervé’s concluding remarks focussed on the historical and political contexts of cultural capitals, those which shaped universalities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and those inherited by present-day museums practitioners and curators.  Hervé rounded up the day by provoking further reflection upon the concept of universalities in the twenty-first century, as well as reminding us to sign up to the upcoming international conference at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in June 2018 exploring contemporary definitions of ‘universal’ histories and ‘universal’ museums, and comparisons between them.


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