Tracking Entangled Provenances: Knowledge Production in Relation to Objects

We are publishing this article on provenance research in conjunction with the 6th German/American Provenance Exchange Program (PREP) in Washington, DC.

The German Historical Institute, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Goethe-Institut Washington have organized a public panel discussion on October 26, 2019, titled “Object Lessons: German and American Perspectives on Provenance Research of the Colonial and Nazi Eras.” Please register online.

Where is the object from? Who did it belong to? How did it enter the collection? Nowadays, hardly any curator can avoid dealing with these questions before exhibiting or acquiring works of art or other cultural objects. Provenance has become an essential factor for public acceptance of the legitimacy of holdings in national museum collections worldwide as a consequence of two broad trends. On the one hand, a broad consensus on Nazi-confiscated art was reached in 1998 and expressed in the Washington Principles. On the other hand, there have been numerous heated public debates in recent years about the unlawful or unfair appropriation of cultural assets and the possible restitution of such items.1 Concern about the origins of objects is growing for libraries and archives too. Thus, provenance research has become a globally sought-after discipline.

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Kuhn and Lamprecht

T. S. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions has had a profound and enduring impact on the social history of knowledge. It has provided an analytical template not only for the history of the natural sciences but also for the history of many other forms of systematic knowledge, including history itself. However, this very versatility has been an object of criticism. A central point of contention has been the central concept of a “paradigm,” which Kuhn understood to be (among other things) a “relatively inflexible box” of accepted scientific rules and procedures for defining and resolving research “puzzles,” whose solutions can be predicted and replicated.1 The question then becomes whether paradigms pertain uniquely to knowledge in the natural-science fields, in which the precise and regular operation of principles can be demonstrated experimentally. If so, the concept of paradigm becomes inappropriate as a guide to the history of humanistic disciplines (like history), in which issues of meaning and human value are central and knowledge is anchored in hermeneutic strategies of inquiry. The validity of paradigms is governed accordingly by the contrasting characteristics of the “two cultures” of knowledge.2

The object of these reflections is not to contest this proposition. It is instead to emphasize that the distinction between the natural and what became known as the “human sciences” has a history of its own (and how could it not?). Continue reading “Kuhn and Lamprecht”

Negotiating and Communicating Evidence: Lessons from the Anthropocene Debate

Skepticism and debate are always welcome and are critically important to the advancement of science. . . . Skepticism that fails to account for evidence is no virtue.

The executive director of the American Meteorological Society, Keith Seitter, made this distinction about skepticism in his letter to the U.S. Secretary of the Department of Energy, Rick Perry, on June 21, 2017.[1] In that letter, he bemoaned the secretary’s rejection of empirically based knowledge about climate change. At the same time, he underlined the importance of related research and of taking the resulting evidence seriously.

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