Museums and Collections (1500-2000)

Museums hold a special place in the world of science as sites that prioritize both research and public education. Of course (and increasingly so in recent years), museums are also meant to entertain the general public. Yet the average museum-goer rarely ponders the multiple roles that these institutions have played in generating wealth, promulgating nationalism, and furthering science on the whole. Likewise, concerns about why and how a science museum is funded and the consequent effects on what kind of knowledge it creates and presents are not often at the forefront of one's mind when strolling past displays of dinosaur bones, minerals, or ethnographic artifacts. Nevertheless, such considerations have shaped museums at every stage of their historical development and, to a large extent, have helped form modern science itself. Science museums have also changed how a given society understands the natural world and its own place within it.

At its most basic, a museum requires the collection of things; that is, objects are taken from their original location and put in a "scientific" one. The criteria governing what is and is not worthy of collection, however, have changed considerably since Europeans began hording "curiosities" from the natural and human world during the Renaissance and early modern period. Such early cabinets of curiosity, like the Museum Wormianum in the sources, displayed items meant to fill the visitor with wonder, a cultivated sentiment evoked by such things as stuffed birds, interesting crystals, or weapons from an alien culture. The noticeable differences between such diverse items, though, led collectors and naturalists alike to draw larger and larger distinctions between various curios, a process that was closely tied to the rise of scientific specializations such as botany, zoology, and even anthropology (Bedini 1965; Jenkins 1994).

This process, though, was not limited to Europe. The strange things found in the New World directly inspired European curiosity in nature and the empirical study of it, both of which led Europeans to take things (and, indeed, people) from the Americas to display and study in European capitals. Although a few inhabitants of Latin America, such as Sor Juana, accrued collections of scientific books and instruments in the early colonial period, the region did not see a significant number of scientific collections, museums, or botanical gardens until the late eighteenth century, when creole intellectuals and European scientific expeditions began founding these institutions. Almost immediately after the wars of independence (1808-1820), the governments of the new Latin American nation states made it a priority to promote science and many national museums sprang up with mandates to educate the public, study natural resources, and serve as loci of national pride (Saldana 2006).

Until well into the twentieth century, two main themes have motivated Latin American museums of science: economics and national pride. As institutions that gathered and studied natural resources, especially plants and minerals, governments used museums as a vehicle for bringing hitherto unexploited resources into the service of the state. This was not a novel idea: according to historian Paula S. De Vos, the Spanish and other European empires collected natural specimens from throughout the world in metropolitan museums and botanical gardens in order to further the crown's economic interests (De Vos 2007). While the Latin American nation states were more limited in their geographic scope (usually to the territory within their own borders), many of these areas were but little known and the search for new sources of wealth, especially plants, catalyzed the creation of many museums and botanical gardens that would find economically viable uses for hitherto unknown flora. Even small countries with undeveloped scientific infrastructures like Costa Rica and Venezuela (both considered in the sources) made an effort to build local science through museums. There were, however, often too many economic or political obstacles to overcome and many of these fledgling museums were abandoned (Eakin 1999; McCook 2002).

The other theme, nationalism, manifested itself in several ways in Latin America's science museums. The first and perhaps most important way was their very existence; nationalists who hoped to build countries that would be cultural and intellectual equals to France and England saw national museums as a requisite facet of modernity. National museums (as well as important provincial ones like the Museu Paulista and the Museo de La Plata) could also focus attention on those aspects of science in which a given country prided itself (Lopes and Podrogny 2000). Thus, for example, Argentina's Museo de La Plata displayed the bones of giant Patagonian mammals while Mexico's Museo Nacional (later the Museo Nacional de Antropologia) showed off the glorious artifacts of its pre-Spanish civilizations. Latin American governments also hoped that science museums would promulgate science within the nation that was also for the nation, training specialists that would further develop scientific infrastructures while improving society in practical ways.

Today, Latin America is home to several world renowned museums that educate visitors and publish research, yet much of the material on which various sciences are based (plants, animals, fossils, artifacts) continue to be collected and displayed by scientific powers outside of the region. Recent debates over the repatriation of ethnographic artifacts (like those Hiram Bingham III took from Peru) prove just how touchy this subject can be and how museums--and even local variations of science--are still quite imbued with nationalistic sentiments.

Questions for further exploration:

1. How were the earliest European museums (the "cabinets of curiosity") directly influenced by the discovery and exploration of the New World? In your response, consider the new approach to science practiced by the Spanish Empire during the early colonial era (expeditions, empiricism, search for resources, questionnaires, etc.). Give specific examples and consult other topics, especially Scientific Expeditions and Early Colonial Science.

2. Compare the collection efforts of late eighteenth-century Spain, such as its natural history museums and botanical gardens, with the national museums built by Latin American nation states soon after their independence. What was similar or different about the ideologies, motives, items, purpose, organization, scope, etc. of the collections?

3. What are some (two or three) of the problems with museums as scientific institutions? Are these problems shared by museums the world over or do they play out differently in Latin America?

4. Latin America has a natural wealth of plant life, including thousands of genera that exist nowhere else in the world. Look at the history of botanical collecting since the Enlightenment by naturalists both within and outside of the region. How have the methods and goals of botanical collectors changed (or stayed the same) over the last 250 years. Consult the Botany topic for your response.

5. Latin American institutions have used museums and collections to increase their prestige and discover and cultivate new resources, but the instability of many of these institutions has led to the loss of several potentially important specimens that may have been better preserved in scientifically more advanced countries. Make an argument for or against local (Latin American) museums as the best sites to preserve, study, and display local (Latin American) specimens (plant, animal, fossil, ethnographic, etc.).

Further reading:

Bedini, Silvio A. "The Evolution of Science Museums." Technology and Culture. 6: 1, Museums of Technology (Winter 1965): 1-29.

De Vos, Paula S. "Natural History and the Pursuit of Empire in Eighteenth-Century Spain." Eighteenth-Century Studies. 40: 2 (2007): 209-239.

Eakin, Marshall C. "The Origins of Modern Science in Costa Rica: The Instituto Fisico-Geografic Nacional, 1887-1904."  Latin American Research Review. 34: 1 (1999): 123-150.

Jenkins, David. "Object Lessons and Ethnographic Displays: Museum Exhibition and the Making of American Anthropology." Comparative Studies of Society and History. 36: 2 (April 1994): 242-270.

Lopes, Maria Margaret and Irina Podgorny. "The Shaping of Latin American Museums of Natural History, 1850-1990."  Osiris, 2nd Series. 15, Nature and Empire: Science and the Colonial Enterprise (2000): 108-118.

McCook, Stuart. States of Nature: Science, Agriculture, and Environment in the Spanish Caribbean, 1760-1940. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.

Saldana, Jaun Jose. "Science and Freedom: Science and Technology as a Policy of the New American States." In Saldana, Juan Jose and Bernabe Madrigal, eds. Science in Latin America: A History. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006. pp. 151-162.

---. "Science and Public Happiness during the Latin American Enlightenment." In Saldana, Juan Jose and Bernabe Madrigal, eds. Science in Latin America: A History. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006. pp. 51-92.