Magnus Hirschfield (1868–1935) was a world-renowned pioneer in sexology.1 Years of his modern scientific knowledge production on sexology were monumentalized with the establishment of the Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin in 1919. On May 10, 1933, the institute became an early target of violent Nazi attacks with its library ransacked and its books burned publicly.2 During these turbulent times in Germany, Hirschfeld was on a lecture tour in the Unites States, where he was lauded as a celebrity and his knowledge was embraced enthusiastically by many in the American academy, press, and public. Unable to return home because of the Nazi seizure of power, he decided to embark on a world tour to acquire and share the “treasures of serological knowledge.”3 In transit, he acquired new ideas.
What do governments know? When and why have they generated knowledge about themselves, sovereign territories, the functioning of bureaucracies, legal systems, and the effectiveness of legislation? In other words, how have officials made that capacious concept we call the state legible?
State knowledge took on heightened importance in Central Europe in the nineteenth century with the transition away from remaining vestiges of feudalism. This is especially clear to see during the revolutions of 1848. Over the course of a turbulent two years, revolutionaries protested against a great many things. They most famously called for national unification and the introduction of liberal constitutions, but they also demanded the reform of outdated modes of administration. Such ultimatums were unsettling for governments in two ways. First, they required a rethinking of law, as well as of the kinds of bureaucratic structures and activities needed to bring about a more flexible handling of domestic affairs. And second, they prompted an urgent need to generate knowledge to gage the effectiveness of these initiatives.
The Great Exhibition of 1851 excited curiosity in nineteenth-century contemporaries and continues to garner interest among scholars today. Attracting some six million visitors and comprising over 100,000 exhibits that filled 76,720 square meters of exhibition space, it entered media, memory, and historiography as an emblem of British industrial capabilities, free-trade ideology, and imperial globalization. Yet it is seldom discussed in relation to the consequential contemporaneous transformation of modern sciences into a set of powerful, highly institutionalized social practices.
In the 1850s, a physician at St. Bartholomew Hospital in London struggling with an unclear case of fever with affection of the bowels might have wanted to find information about the patient’s prognosis or an alternative medical treatment. Likewise, a medical student preparing a case for presentation to the hospital society, might have wanted further information about typhus fever, namely, its course, average prognosis, possible complications, and treatment. Both doctor and student would probably visit the library of the hospital’s “Medical College” to find comparable cases and case reports in voluminous bound casebooks.
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. 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.
In the first week of October 1932, an International Conference on Migration Statistics was held in Geneva. Over the course of five days, some thirty statisticians from twenty-six countries discussed how to produce more reliable international migration statistics. This kind of methodological discussion about statistical standardization was not at all unusual in the new world of international organization. Since 1920, the standardization of statistics had become an ordinary activity in the “Palace” of the International Labour Organization and the League of Nations in the hills above Lake Geneva.
The International Conference on Migration Statistics offers particularly interesting insights into the historical attempt by international organizations to measure the world. On the one hand, “international migration” was not yet a category in scholarship and policy making. It was an international invention intended to bring together the existing categories of “emigration” and “immigration.” Before this time, these last two categories were perceived as two fundamentally separate phenomena. Perhaps more plainly than other objects targeted by statistical analysis, “international migration” was connected to the effort to construct a new international understanding of the world after the Great War.
Knowledge is not a static entity. It is not obtained by discovering universal truths. Instead, it is a process of creation and simultaneously an outcome. It is mediated, socially (re)defined, and accepted or rejected. It always contains an underlying sense of rationality, however understood, and is dependent on temporal and spatial contexts. This dynamic image of knowledge is not new, but how can it be reflected in a museum? How can the diverse factors and layers of knowledge production be made explicit in order to go beyond the mediation of factual information to the visitor? In addition, how can visitors themselves actively engage in a way that takes the dynamics of knowledge formation seriously? Finally, how can the museum bring academic and public knowledge creation together?
In 1903, the Austrian journalist Emil Löbl observed that “many of today’s readers” see their newspaper as a “universal encyclopedia,” the study of which, they believed, satisfied their duty as “cultivated people” (Kulturmenschen) to stay informed. Whether or not this was a positive development, journalists needed to recognize that “modern readers expected of newspapers the greatest degree of universality, the widest variety, the most complete abundance of content.”
On February 10 and 11, we held a conference entitled “Mapping Entanglements: Missionary Knowledge and ‘Materialities’ across Space and Time (16th–20th centuries).” Broadly speaking, the conference posited that what we know about missionaries is not the same as what we know from missionaries, and it aimed to examine the history of the latter under the rubric of “missionary knowledge.” Accordingly, conference participants explored how missionaries produced knowledge as well as how this knowledge traveled and transformed from generation to generation and location to location. By tracing a wide variety of missionaries’ cultural productions, including writings, maps, drawings, and collections of objects, participants mapped the terrains in which missionary knowledge transpired—within, but also beyond the purview of the distinct missions in which it originated.
Historiographical notes blogged by a PhD student in New Zealand, S.D. Carpenter:
A number of scholars of British India have sought to understand the ways in which British power was exercised through constructing knowledge about Indian societies, including their histories and literatures, languages and geographies. At one end of the spectrum, intellectual followers of Edward Said argue that the British imposed their own knowledge and cultural forms on India. At the other end, some historians argue that the British had necessarily to work with what they found, relied on local informants, and had to tailor any ‘exotic’ ideas from Britain to different Indian contexts so as to make their rule acceptable.
Featured image: “Mission station, Rangihoua, 1830,” The Encylopedia of New Zealand, s.v. “Cultural go-betweens” by Mark Derby.
Update, August 31, 2017: The image is no longer included in the entry at https://teara.govt.nz/en/cultural-go-betweens, although other images are.