Forgotten Grand Tourists: Reconstructing the Archives of the Women Who Collected and Curated the Natural World
As someone who has always been fascinated in practices of collection, the programme has helped me refine my research questions: What compels people to design collections? For what purpose do they accumulate ‘things’? And, when they’re displayed, who does and doesn’t get to see them? Focussing on aristocratic eighteenth-century collectors who travelled the world in search of natural and man-made ‘curiosities’, my research attempts to deprivilege Eurocentric perspectives. Revealing the exploitative practices entailed in the production, consumption, and mediation of their collections, it has been my aim to unravel the material controversies of the past that continue to inhabit the present.
Interested by the materials Enlightenment collectors accumulated, my object essay dissected the mystery of the V&A’s rare ivory manikin (c.1750-1800). Encased in a box that resembles a funeral bier, the 18 cm-long manikin can be disassembled to reveal a miniature foetus. Carved out of prohibitively expensive African elephant ivory which offered limited anatomical accuracy, it failed as a didactic tool. Divested of its practical, educational utility, I concluded that, over time, such objects were coveted by curiosity collectors who prized them as elite cultural capital, replete with ornamental and apparently ‘exotic’ materials.
Utterly absorbed (and appalled) by the ways collectors subjected materials to new narrativisations, my historiography essay detailed the efforts of Sir Hans Sloane. As a Grand Tour collector of global proportions, his efforts were instrumental in the birth of the British Museum in 1753. Mapping the divergent ways scholars have brought their opinions to bear on the genesis of the collection he ‘bequeathed to the nation’, I concluded by considering the ways museums overlook the violent extraction of ethnographic objects they continue to archive and exhibit today.
Interested in the power individual’s wield with archives – and increasingly alarmed by the predominance of male narratives in collecting scholarship – I began to wonder: Where were all the women? Recovering elite eighteenth-century women collectors from the archives and rearticulating them as designers of global natural history collections, my dissertation traced their travel routes and examined their illustrated journals to show how they procured specimens such as fossils, feathers, taxidermy, and minerals. Categorising and displaying them in purpose-built cabinets and boxes in their English country houses, I argued that their actions contributed to the British empire’s colonial expansion.
Today, I continue to nurture a rapid-response digital archive I co-founded called ‘WORD ON THE STREET’. The project collects and maps crowd-sourced street photography found in the wake of COVID-19. As a rich repository of material expressions, it is my hope that it will serve future historians from a range of different disciplines.