Authors: Jrgen Osterhammel Patrick Camiller
museums were based on a premise different from displaying collections of ancient relics. The first museum of this kind, the MusÃ©e des Monuments FranÃ§ais dating from 1791, grouped a chronological series of statues, tombs, and portraits of persons whom its founder, Alexandre Lenoir, considered to have been important in the life of the nation.
Beginning with the Napoleonic Wars, new collections with a historical focus were designated as national museums in many European countries, early on in Denmark, Sweden, and Hungary. In Norway and Finland, national collections predated independent statehood and contributed to the visibility of nationalist movements. In Britain, there was no national history museum; the British Museum was meant to encompass “civilization” in the widest possible sense. However, Parliament established the National Portrait Gallery in 1856, with the aim of strengthening national and
imperial sentiment. When three imperial museums were simultaneously inaugurated in Japan in 1889, the problem resembled that of Hungary seventy years before: there were no ruler's collections, and objects had to be acquired from many different sources.
Painted scenes from the nation's heroic past could stand in for missing artifacts.
The historical museum proper rested upon a new understanding of “historical objects.” It was not enough that they should be “old”; they had to have a significance that spontaneously communicated itself to the beholder, and they had to be both worthy and necessary objects to preserve. In Germany, where “fatherland heritage” associations were founded in numerous places after 1815, it took many years to advance toward a national museum. A decision to create one was finally made in 1852, and a Germanisches (not “Deutsches”!) Nationalmuseum subsequently came into being in Nuremberg, in a spirit of gushing patriotism and with a heavy emphasis on the Middle Ages.
No thought was ever given to a central museum in the capital, even after the founding of the German Reich in 1871.
In Asia and Africa, historical museums usually emerged only after a country won its political independence. Meanwhile, a large part of the indigenous art treasures, manuscripts, and archaeological remains often disappeared into the museums of the colonial metropolises.
In Egypt the outflow had already begun with the French invasion of 1798. Muhammad Ali, as the nominally Ottoman viceroy of Egypt from 1805 to 1848, did impose a ban on exports of antiquities in 1835, but he was himself extremely generous in giving them away. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo was essentially a private initiative on the part of the archaeologist Auguste Mariette, who had been appointed curator of antiquities in 1858. The Muslim potentates of the time were divided over the neo-pharaonic style that Mariette chose for the construction: the world of pagan mummies was alien to them, but they could see that the European enthusiasm for pre-Islamic antiquity was good for Egypt's reputation in the world.
For the museums in Istanbul (Constantinople),
it was important that in 1874 the Ottoman Empire established control over the division of finds from foreign-directed archaeological excavations. In China the huge decaying structures of the former imperial palaceâthe Forbidden City of a thousand temples, halls, and pavilionsâwere designated a museum in 1925 and largely opened to the public. But only in 1958 did the state establish a national museum with a nationalist focus.
museums were only intermittently associated with patriotic or nationalist strivings.
They first developed in the mid-nineteenth century, sometimes as the continuation of a princely cabinet of curiosities or a private scholar's collection. The KÃ¶nigliches Museum fÃ¼r VÃ¶lkerkunde, founded in 1886 in Berlin, soon became known as the world's richest ethnological depository. German ethnological research was not a creation of colonialism but stemmed from an earlier, liberal-humanist tradition of cultural studies.
German travelers and ethnologists collected on every continent. The task of the museum was
emphatically not to satisfy a crude appetite for the exotic and the sensational. The conversion of objects into scientific material was supposed to happen in the museum, which also served research purposes and helped to train new experts.
The ethnological museums displayed items that had come into the possession of Europeans by theft, or transactions akin to theft, and were not part of their national heritage.
The aim was to present the diversity of human life, but only in relation to “primitive peoples,” as they were then known. Each museum was part of a newly developing world of collections and exhibitions. As in the case of art galleries, connoisseurs were soon able to survey items from all around the world. Museums competed with one another but were also elements in a global movement toward the representation of material culture. They had a subversive effect insofar as avant-garde artists were able to find inspiration in them. It was not necessary to travel to the South Seas, as Paul Gauguin did in 1891, to absorb the renewing energy of “the primitive.”
Not only objects but also human beings were dispatched to Europe and North America to demonstrate, for “scientific” as well as commercial purposes, the otherness and “savagery” of the non-Occidental. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, such human displays were an everyday entertainment in the metropolises of the West, and many smaller cities found space for mobile exhibitions. It was one peculiarity of this period of rapid cultural upheaval.
Such events had been very rare before 1850, and after the First World War they became subject to a slowly emerging humanitarian taboo. The commercial exhibition of nonwhites, and also of handicapped people, was everywhere outlawed in the twentieth century. Yet the
of the ethnographic museum survived decolonization, its declared aim no longer being to spread knowledge of “primitive” lifestyles as objects but rather to preserve a common cultural heritage in a multiethnic world. The nineteenth-century type of museum was itself decolonized.
Another novelty of the nineteenth century was the world exhibition, the most salient combination of panoramic gaze with encyclopedic documentation.
It all started with the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, in London's Hyde Park (1851), whose spectacular crystal palace, a glass-and-iron hall 600 meters long, has remained in the collective memory, although it burned to the ground in 1936 in its new location in the suburbs. The Great Exhibition was a creature of the railway age. Only the train made it possible to bring more than 100,000 exhibits and up to a million visitors from the provincesâa pointer to the “expo tourism” of the future. The rich symbolism of the event left a strong legacy: for some, it embodied the dawning age of world peace and social harmony; for others, Britain's economic and technological superiority; for others still, the triumph of imperial order over the chaos of barbarism. At the same time, the exhibition put forward an elaborate taxonomy of classes, divisions, and subdivisions that went far beyond the older classifications of natural
history to unify nature, culture, and industry in one grand system. Ensconced in this was a dimension of temporal depth. For no opportunity was lost to demonstrate that humanity
as a whole
had not yet attained the same level of complete civilization.
Numerous “world's fairs” and
followed until 1914, each with its ideological agenda associated with a particular point in space and time: Paris (1855, 1867, 1878, 1889, 1900), Antwerp (1885, 1894), Barcelona (1888), Brussels (1897, 1910), Chicago (1893), Ghent (1913), London (1862, and the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886), LiÃ¨ge (1905), Milan (1906), Melbourne (1880), Philadelphia (1876), Saint Louis (1904), Vienna (1873).
The two with the largest attendance were both in Paris: the Exposition Universelle of 1900 (fifty million visitors) and the Exposition Universelle of 1889, which left a landmark still visible today in the form of the Eiffel Tower. World exhibitions were events that conveyed a message; Philadelphia 1876, for instance, first alerted the world to the technological and industrial might of the United States. The aim was always to put the contemporary world on display: the most up-to-date achievements were the heart and soul of the exhibitions. This was not contradicted by the extensive spectacle of “alien” peoples and civilizations. These could be presented as exotica or as visible remnants of earlier stages of human development, at the same time providing evidence that the remotest areas and tribes in the world could be incorporated into the global knowledge-based order. The world's fairs symbolized more clearly than any other medium the universal pretensions of the Atlantic “West.”
Great encyclopedias, as monumental shrines to what is known and worth knowing, are akin to archives, museums, and even world exhibitions; they are also memory hoards and cathedrals of knowledge. The
(from 1771), the
of Brockhaus in Germany (from 1796), and many similar publishing-house projects continued in new ways a rich tradition that had begun in the early modern period.
They grew over time, renewing themselves from edition to edition. Nationalists soon recognized the value of the encyclopedia as a harnessing of scientific energies, a cultural monument, and an international signal of self-confidence and cultural strength. With such reasons in mind, the historian and politician FrantiÅ¡ek PalackÃ½ publicly proposed the idea of a Czech encyclopedia; it came to fruition in a twenty-eight-volume work that appeared between 1888 and 1909, exceeded in size only by the
By the end of the century, all European countries plus the United States had at least one such multivolume encyclopedia claiming to be universal in scopeâto gather the most up-to-date knowledge about all of the earth's regions, periods, and peoples. They were more than reference books or aids for middle-class people to hold their own in conversational and educational contexts. Their
alphabetical listing dispensed with systematic coverage of a subject but allowed the material to be laid out in linear fashion. There must have been readers who spent years struggling to get through from A to Z. The most cohesive, and from today's vantage perhaps the most attractive, encyclopedic achievement of the nineteenth century was Pierre-Athanase Larousse's
Grand dictionnaire universel du XIX
, which appeared in seventeen volumes between 1866 and 1876. Even though for years Larousse provided a small extra income to large sections of the indigent Parisian intelligentsia, he wrote many of the 24,146 pages in his own hand. He was a radical republican, a supporter of the Great Revolution, and an opponent of the Second Empire, but the authorities left him alone and no censor ventured to read the mammoth work. Larousse's aim was not to educate the bourgeoisie but to prepare “the people” for democracy; the volumes were printed on cheap paper and scantily illustrated to make them more affordable. No issue was too hot for him to handle.
That encyclopedias could be perceived as subversive is apparent from the attempts of Sultan AbdÃ¼lhamid II to keep them out of the Ottoman Empire. With a little skill, of course, it was possible to obtain one through the book trade, even in Turkey. Someone who managed this in the 1890s had previously translated 3,500 pages of crime novelsâironically for the pleasure of the sultan's courtâin order to have the means to buy the seventeen-volume Larousse. Another enthusiast had a French encyclopedia smuggled bit by bit into the country in the regular letter mail.
How does the other great encyclopedic tradition compare with these new European developments? Since the eleventh century at the latest, China had been putting together often quite extensive compilations of reprints and excerpts from older literature in every branch of knowledge; these encyclopedias (
) served not least to prepare candidates for the entrance examinations to qualify for the imperial civil service. Unlike in Europe, where a reference work organized alphabetically by keywordsâthe standard format after d'Alembert and Diderot's great collective
of 1751 to 1780âbecame the organon for public debate and a forum for scientific advancement, the Chinese encyclopedias served to codify a hallowed tradition of knowledge, adding no more than layers of supplementary notes. In the twentieth century, comprehensive Western-style works of reference began to be published in Chinese. The
Only in the nineteenth century did European languagesâwhich had often not been consciously appreciated until the Romantic periodâacquire what had existed in China since the great dictionary commissioned by the Kangxi emperor around 1700: that is, a full inventory of all possibilities of written expression in a particular language. The brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who embarked on such a project in 1838 with their
(volume 1 appeared in 1854; the final volume in 1961), and James Murray, who did the same for English-speaking culture after taking over in 1879 as editor of the
Oxford English Dictionary
, were among the most admired cultural heroes of the age,
and among those with the most lasting impact. Murray's network of readers and word collectors soon spanned the globe.
How could these great stores of knowledge have such universal reach in what is often called the age of nationalism? The nineteenth century can be thought of today as global because that is how it thought of itself. The universality of libraries, exhibitions, and encyclopedias signaled a new phase in the development of the knowledge society in Europe. The most important theoretical currents of the timeâpositivism, historicism, evolutionismâshared a cumulative and critical conception of knowledge that went together with the idea of its public significance. Knowledge was supposed to be educative
useful. The new media made it possible to unite the traditional
the new. In no other civilization had the culture of scholarship developed in such a direction. In Japan and China among others, however, the educated elites were willing to play an active role in shaping the transfer of new European conceptions and the institutions associated with them. This transfer got under way in the last third of the nineteenth century, but in most places it became really noteworthy only after 1900. The nineteenth century was an age of well-nurtured memory. This is one of the reasons why it retains a strong presence in today's world. The collecting and exhibiting institutions that it created continue to prosper, without being tied to the goals set at the time when they were founded.