The Business of Museums: Towards a History of Collections in La Plata's Museum, 1888-1906

Máximo E. Farro (La Plata National University, Argentina)

The general purpose of our research is to analyse the different strategies that were developed at the La Plata’s Museum between 1888 and 1906 to create, support and enlarge the museum’s collections and exhibitions[1]. This period began with the Museum’s foundation in 1888, an event inspired by Francisco Pascasio Moreno’s provincial museum project. The period concluded with the transfer of the Museum to the La Plata National University in 1906 (Teruggi 1988). The Museum’s foundation attended to a specific problem: to classify, show, and thus to create, a national space until then undefined (Podgorny 1999b). The classification of that “desert” by scientific institutions effectively defined the domain of the State, not just the characteristics of a particular part of the world. That classification not only included the flora and the fauna, but also the indigenous people who inhabited the land, and as consequence, anthropological and archaeological studies were included as part of the “natural history” of the nation (Podgorny y Politis 1992). The La Plata Museum, at least during the first years, exhibited only anthropological remains and aboriginal material culture, to show the first stages of the evolution of national territory. A military expedition to the Río Negro expanded the Argentinean frontier into indigenous territories[2]. Once subjugated by the nation, the Indians and the conquered territory “became objects of knowledge and reflection for science. This way the aborigines became objects of analysis and observation, at the same time that their material culture, their bodies and their skeletal remains became part of the lands over which the nation now had sovereignty” (Podgorny 1999b:84).

Metropolitan marketplaces and natural history museums

Museums not only purchased collections or specimens to exhibit. They also bought display materials (cardboard trays and storage cabinets; glass boxes, display cases labels, glass-topped boxes; clips, hooks and pins for mounting; plaster casts of fossil and skeletons), research materials (instruments; prepared microscopic slides and anatomical models); books and scientific reviews; general furniture and even special natural history cabinets, packaged as teaching aids for colleges and universities. Directors, curators and research workers often played a vital role as intermediaries in this market of natural history objects. They developed complicated strategies to enlarge their holdings, collecting local specimens and organising material exchanges (Podgorny 1999a, Lopes 1997).

In connection with this, let us highlight that by the mid-nineteenth century, London had emerged as the centre of a flourishing trade in natural history objects, dominated by a few leading dealers. Advances in methods of capturing, killing, and preserving specimens, an intensive maritime trade that penetrated to far corners of the globe, and even postal price reductions, all contributed to the success of such enterprises (Sheets-Pyenson 1988). Trading firms in England, France, Germany and the United States not only vied to enlarge their marketplaces, “conquering” the rising scientific institutions of America, Asia and Africa, but also to obtain samples from these same territories to exhibit and to sell in other parts of the world (Sheets-Pyenson and L. Pyenson 1999). Owing to the success of some of these entrepreneurs, even rarities from the colonial environment had begun to turn up in the marketplaces of England, continental Europe, and the United States more frequently than in their places of origin. As natural history became big business, entrepreneurial dealers replaced smaller suppliers and taxidermists

Traders offered a wide range of objects: apparatus for capture; labels and clips, hooks and pins for mounting; cardboard trays and storage cabinets; glass-boxes and display cases. British examples of such stores include “Mary Annings’s fossil shop” in Lyme Regis “a landmark for the gentleman geologist”; “James Tennant’s shop”, which stocked geological maps, hammers and recent publications, as well as fossils rocks, minerals and shells; in London, W. Cutter of Great Russell Street, which handled skulls and other “ethnological curiosities” and offered to point out “lucrative localities” to gentlemen collectors travelling abroad; and J.A Brewer, Reigate and London, which specialised in the small objects needed for herbaria and insect collection (cited on Sheets-Pyenson 1988: 71-72)

The U.S. situation was similar. In Rochester, New York, for instance, a taxidermy firm run by Henry Augustus Ward [3] and his brother-in-law Edwin Howell offered a range of products: plaster casts of fossil and skeletons; the famous “Blaschka’s glass models” of invertebrates and plants, (made by the Czech artisans Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, who worked in Dresden, Germany, between 1887 and 1936); relief maps, prepared microscopic slides, and anatomical models; and the aforementioned natural history cabinets packaged as teaching aids for colleges and universities (Sheets-Pyenson 1988).

Moreno’s idea of an international research centre made it possible to establish early links between La Plata Museum and metropolitan natural history merchants. Founded at the end of nineteenth century, the Museo de La Plata offers a privileged opportunity to look into this problem. An exceptional case in South America, it was for a long time the only museum to have its own building specially constructed to house it. Construction of the building began in 1884 in what was then the new capital of Buenos Aires County, precisely to hold the general museum project of the conceived by Moreno (Podgorny 1995).

The core collections were originally Moreno’s private natural history cabinets, composed of approximately 15,000 pieces[4]. The volume of these collections was not sufficient to prompt completion of the exhibit rooms of the monumental building opened to public visitors in 1888. To solve this problem, Moreno stimulated donations, exchanges with others institutions and purchases in the open metropolitan market. He also turned to independent collectors and hunters (Moreno 1890), and carried out collecting campaigns in Patagonia and other remote parts of the Argentine hinterland. There he discovered numerous ancient burial grounds and Indian camps. From the mid-1880s onward he was aided by hired “travelling naturalist”[5]. They travelled deep into Patagonia and others remote parts of Argentina’s hinterland gathering specimens of fauna and flora, geology samples and examples of indigenous people’s material culture. During this period, the most noted “travelling naturalists” were Carlos Ameghino, who acted in La Plata between 1886 and 1888, and whose special field of search was that of Patagonian fossil mammals; C. Burckhardt, Swiss geologist, and L. Wherli, who gathered invertebrates fossils, rocks and others materials of the Mountain range of San Juan and Mendoza. Julio Koslovsky specialised in batrachians, reptiles and birds; Rudolf Hauttal collected rocks, minerals and fossils of the counties of Buenos Aires, Catamarca and Mendoza; Adolf Methfessel, lithographer and Swiss painter, obtained anthropological and archaeological materials (human skeletons and skulls; pottery pieces, metal and stone instruments, etc); and Nicolás Alboff, a Russian botanist, made a great herbarium between 1895 and 1897, with specimens from the counties of Buenos Aires, Corrientes, Misiones and Tierra del Fuego (Teruggi 1988).

Podgorny (1995) has defined the La Plata’s Museum as a “monument-evidence”: it contained evidence of the triumph over the undescribed “desert” and at the same time was material evidence – just like palaeontological and archaeological evidence – not of what had occurred in the past but of what would be the Argentinean future.

As part of that “monument-evidence”, the collections, and specifically the different mechanisms used to enlarge them, have not been studied in detail. In connection with this issue, and inspired partly by the “histoire du livre” of the French tradition (Chartier 1994) but changing the object of study to museums, we propose to undertake an overview of the “natural history museum” not only as the institution which represents and explores national territory, but also as a result of the nineteenth century scientific market. In that sense we see museums as a part of the material culture which create and support them, so we are interested in detecting the material basis of society at the time the La Plata Museum and its exhibitions were created.

In summary, studying the local networks of purchase and exchange formed by independent collectors and “travelling naturalists” hired by the La Plata Museum that worked in Argentina toward the turn of last century, and, the same time, examining the international networks of purchase and exchange formed by European and North American museums and the metropolitan suppliers of scientific objects, we will be able to see to the museum as a link in the scientific market of the time.

Collections and exhibit materials are physical objects that circulate through channels of trade and exchange. Their production, distribution and consumption can be studied systematically. In order to achieve this objective it is important to look into the museum’s archives. They offer us information about different topics often forgotten in institutional histories. How did the market of natural history objects work and what was its extent and impact? What was the role of directors, curators, collectors, researchers and others intermediaries on networks of trade and exchange? What were the offers made by the suppliers to the Museum? Which offers were rejected and why? What types of materials were most required to represent local nature? What kind of influence did these objects have in the transmission of the scientific ideas? Accordingly, we agree with Robert Darnton’s idea regarding the phenomenon of the encyclopaedia: natural history collections became “objects of manufacture, works of art, articles of commercial exchange, vehicles of ideas and conflict elements” (Darnton 1996:13).

In the archives of La Plata’s Museum there are letters from collectors in the hinterland who offered regional collections and specimen for sale; catalogues of materials for exhibition; tickets and bills from European shipping companies; bills of suppliers (instrumental, furniture, books and specimens) from Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Hamburg, London, Liverpool, New York, and so on. These documents will allow us to retrace, partly, the nineteenth and early twentieth century routes of shipping companies that played instrumental roles in assembling the Museum’s collection. In consequence, we will be able to present the history of collections in the wider context of the social, economic and political forces that created them. At the same time, we will be able to reconsider the La Plata Museum’s collections in a wider cultural history that situates the local within the international. Finally, we think that is interesting to transfer the archaeological view to the La Plata Museum, to consider it as material evidence. This implies that the work on this “monument” is similar to a modern archaeological excavation. In such a context, interest lies not only in objects themselves. It also lies in the relationships between objects and in the stratum that contains them, as well as in the relationships between all that the archaeologist finds and the processes that created what it is that the archaeologist can observe in the present.


I owe thanks to Irina Podgorny, who exchanged ideas and help me in different ways.


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[1] The analysis of collecting attitudes, within cultural history studies, includes several works, some focussing on individual obsessions (Benjamin, 1989); some on the history of heritage collections in contemporary national museums (Florescano 1993, Hill Boone 1993, Kaplan 1994, Morales Moreno 1994, Moran, M y F. Checa 1991, Pearce. 1990, 1993,1995, Pomian, 1991, Sherman and Rogoff 1994, Stocking 1985). The ‘enterprises’ of science have been studied in relation to books (Darnton 1995,1996), to the traffic of animals for zoos and circuses (Jardine et al. 1997) and to botanical gardens (Jardine, Kohlmaier y von Sartory 1990).

[2] In 1879, General Julio A. Roca arrived at the banks of the Río Negro in Patagonia, the culmination of a military campaign against the natives. As a result he incorporated to the patrimony of the State 15,000 “leguas cuadradas” of land (39,000,000 hectares) (Pérez Gollán 1995). For a detailed study of national organization and historical context see Halperin Donghi 1980, Oszlak 1990.

[3] During the 1880s, natural history merchant Henry Ward travelled to New Zealand, Australia and South America. On 27 June 1889, he arrived to Buenos Aires. A few days later, he travelled to La Plata to visit the recently founded Museo General (Ward 1890). He was a qualified observer of the scientific institutions in Argentina at late nineteenth century (for a report on his visit to Argentina, see Pérez Gollán 1995).

[4] In the donation documentation of these collections to the County of Buenos Aires we can observe the great proportion of anthropological and archaeological materials. There are skulls and skeletons of indigenous people, current and old, from Patagonia, Chaco, Santiago del Estero and the Northwest area. There are also casts of skulls from Europe and great quantity of archaeological remains (pottery remains, arrow tips, bone and metal instruments, etc) and ethnographic objects (darts, mortars, utensils of domestic use, etc) from the Argentinean hinterland and other parts of the world as a result of purchases and of exchanges with other institutions.

[5] By the early twentieth century, this method – using a museum’s permanent staff – became the dominant method of expanding collections and eventually drove most natural history dealers out of business (Sheets-Pyenson, 1988:90)