The British Museum is one of the most popular museums in the world. The free permanent exhibition provides information about two million years of human history from a cross-cultural perspective. Since its founding in 1753, the museum has had a clearly universal ambition: It has aimed to explore and exhibit the history of the world through material legacies. Neil MacGregor, who was the director of the museum from 2002 to 2015, exemplified this intention in his groundbreaking book and radio series, A History of the World in 100 Objects (2010). Continue reading “Provenance Research as History of Knowledge: Archaeological Finds from the Syrian-Turkish Border at the British Museum”
Editorial note: The editors wish to acknowledge that the date of this post about risk cultures, highlighting the example of fire-fighting technologies, marks the 22nd anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which took the lives of so many firefighters and other first responders. While we often honor the people involved in emergency response, we frequently forget to also analyze the constraints of modern risk cultures.
When Ulrich Beck published Risk Society in 1986, the sociologist could have hardly known how influential his work would become for scholars studying risk. The idea that industrial modernity undermined itself through the very means of technological advancement proved exceptionally relevant. At the time of publication, chemical industries and nuclear energy presented paramount environmental and societal challenges.1 Continue reading “Exploring Histories of Risk and Knowledge”
My book Underground Mathematics tells the story of a discipline that has been forgotten today, subterranean geometry. Known as “the art of setting limits” (Markscheidekunst) in German and geometria subterranea in Latin, it developed in the silver mines of early modern Europe. From the Ore Mountains of Saxony to the Harz, in many mining cities in the Holy Roman Empire and beyond, an original culture of accuracy and measurement developed, paving the way for many technical and scientific innovations.
Who do fossils belong to? The question is far from new: in various guises, it has preoccupied paleoscientists, museum curators, and occasionally officials for many years, although ongoing debates about the decolonization of science and natural history collections have renewed its significance. For my childhood self, the answer would have been simple: fossils belong to anyone who cares to be enchanted and educated by them. Adult life is undoubtedly more complicated. Here, I begin to sketch an answer with a reminder of what is at stake. As remnants of past geological ages, plant and animal fossils often belong to a time when the Earth’s physical geography was markedly different from now, to say nothing of its geopolitical organization. That their ownership matters today clearly indicates how science and politics intersect: fossils provide a scientific lens through which to investigate the deep past, but they also help to weave that past into the politics of the present and the making of the future.Continue reading “Owning the (Deep) Past: Paleontological Knowledge and the Political Afterlives of Fossils”
Editor’s note: As has previously been mentioned on this blog, our sister blog, Migrant Knowledge, also always bears some relevance to the history of knowledge. This is not surprising since, as that blog’s motto points out, it seeks to “writ[ e] knowledge into the history of migration and migration into the history of knowledge.” In that spirit, we offer this crossposting from Migrant Knowledge as we have occasionally done since that blog’s inception.
During the nineteenth century, certain tropical islands and continental coasts in the world’s three major oceans witnessed the long-distance migration of millions of bonded laborers, chiefly though not exclusively from Asia. These migrations had lasting social, cultural, and demographic effects on both their places of origin and their destinations. Public memory of this form of migration, remembered as indenture or contract labor, plays a prominent role in local history and identity construction in sites ranging from Suriname and Fiji, South Africa and Trinidad to Mauritius and Hawai’i.Continue reading “Of Dodos, Cane, and Migrants: Networking Migrant Knowledge between Mauritius and Hawai’i in the 1860s”
This short piece traces how the Black Power era affected the unfolding of the transmission of African diasporic religious knowledge and how it contributed to the evolution of specifically African American variations of Lucumí in the U.S. Most historical studies examining the influence of the Black Power movement on religious expression in the U.S. focus on Christian or Muslim practices, largely overlooking African diasporic religions like Haitian Vodou or Lucumí, the Cuban variant of the Yoruba religion.1 Yet, these religions began to take root in the U.S. around the time the Black Power movement emerged on the national stage. This omission is all the more surprising in that African American Lucumí practices, in particular, illustrate how Black Power-inspired notions of identity and community found expression in a deeply religious form.2 An examination of the emergence of these religions in the U.S. shows how the expectations and experiences of the early African American devotees, who entered these religions in increasing numbers from the late 1960s onward, shaped the development of these religions in the U.S.
Since 1945, no German book on eugenics has been published. However, during two decades of reconstruction of the science of human genetics, which is fundamental to eugenics, the problems of eugenics repeatedly came to the fore and were discussed lively in wide circles.1
In the preface to his monograph Eugenik. Kommende Generationen in der Sicht der Genetik (1966, Eugenics: Coming Generations in the View of Genetics), the West German human geneticist Otmar von Verschuer (1896–1969), presenting himself as an expert in eugenics, emphasized that it was necessary for “this complex of topics” to be presented in a way that was “generally understandable.” His academic accomplishments might have proven his expertise as his career was largely intertwined with the academic boom in eugenics, or “racial hygiene,” as it was called in Germany before 1945. With the help of hereditary knowledge, the eugenics movement aimed to improve the genetic health of human populations. In addition to their intention to solve social problems by biological means, eugenicists also desired to be perceived as a scientific community. In the Weimar Republic, representatives of racial hygiene not only gained access to political decision-makers but also began an intensive process of professionalization.2
You may have heard of the antimalarial agent mefloquine during the Covid-19 pandemic, as scientists suggested repurposing the drug to combat the novel coronavirus. Most drugs are developed for the body of a 27-year-old male Caucasian, and so was this antimalarial. Mefloquine was discovered in the Antimalaria Drug Discovery Program—the biggest program of its kind—launched by the American Army in 1963. Over a period of fifteen years 250,000 antimalarial agents were tested at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) in Washington DC. In 1969, researchers discovered WR 142,490, which became known as mefloquine in 1975. While the clinical trials were conducted in malaria-endemic areas, the drug was later marketed by the Basel-based Swiss pharmaceutical company F. Hofmann-La Roche (Roche) as Lariam®.
Until the 1990s, provenance research, or the history of ownership, was mainly conducted to determine the attribution and authenticity of an artwork. Provenance research grew significantly after the Washington Principles of 1998 and the accompanying increased awareness of the issues surrounding Holocaust-era art theft in Europe. Museums are also committed to documenting transfers of ownership of an object to avoid cultural patrimony issues related to questionably exported antiquities and colonial-era acquisitions.