Mikhail Bulgakov’s first novel, The White Guard, weaves an affecting story about the power of human connection in times of crisis.1 First serialized in 1925, albeit not to completion, and informed by his own experiences, it employs psychological realism to capture life in Ukraine during the catastrophic Russian Civil War, which had ended only a few years earlier.2 That experience included the wildfire spread of “uncertain knowledge.” Not surprisingly, rumors—as well as talk of rumors—abound in The White Guard, providing a window into a world fraught with uncertainty.
As historian of science Lorraine Daston recently remarked, COVID-19 has thrown us back into a state of “ground-zero empiricism.” The manifold manifestations of COVID-19 and the many unknowns involved are provoking scientific speculation that is often based on nothing more than chance observations and personal anecdotes. The radical uncertainty of the current situation, writes Daston, has catapulted us back to the seventeenth century, with almost everything up for grabs, “just as it was for the members of the earliest scientific societies—and everyone else—circa 1660.”1
In August 2019, the city of Bielefeld, home to about 340,000 people in northwest Germany, launched a new marketing campaign based on an old internet joke. In 1994, Achim Held, a computer science student at the University of Kiel, had jokingly spread the rumor that Bielefeld did not actually exist.1 Twenty-five years later, the city’s marketing agency put a new spin on the so-called Bielefeld conspiracy by offering a reward of €1 million for proof that Bielefeld, indeed, did not exist. For once, German humor—quite surprisingly to some—attracted attention far beyond national borders: Entries arrived from participants as far away as China, India, and Australia. Their purported proofs used arguments from such diverse fields as history, physics, and mathematics. In order to make sense of the more complex contributions, the marketing agency’s jury even consulted researchers at Bielefeld’s university and archives. Somewhat less surprisingly, none of the competitors ended up taking home the prize money.2 Proof of nonexistence, apparently, can be quite a nut to crack.
We are all historians of the present. At least we should be. Many fellow historians of knowledge are currently using a wide variety of media to share their experience and research in an effort to put the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic into context. Twitter is one medium where this conversation is especially lively, as Eileen Sperry has noted on Nursing Clio, a wonderful group blog that is also active on Twitter. One can find these parts of Twitter by searching for the relevant hashtags, for example, #histmed (history of medicine) and the much more generic #twitterstorians (historians on twitter).
When the writer Anne Brewster (1818–1892) and the sculptor Harriet Hosmer (1830–1908) met in Italy in 1876, their conversation circled mainly around the recently deceased actress Charlotte Cushman. That itself was hardly unusual—Cushman was the talk of the town. During most of her adult life, Charlotte Cushman (1816–1876) was among the most-well known public figures in the Anglophone world. As an American actress who could boast a phenomenal success in Britain with roles as varied as Meg Merrilies and Romeo, Cushman dominated the theatrical scene on both sides of the Atlantic for several decades. While she might be forgotten today,1 she was everywhere during the height of her success. You can’t miss her in databases like ProQuest’s American Periodicals Series and Historical Newspapers or the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Yet if you relied only on these public sources, you’d miss a lot.
As art objects circulate over time, they connect various people, places, times, stories, and even historiographies. Although they cannot speak to us directly about their biographies, we can still interrogate them and related evidence in order to learn more about who once possessed them and where and how they were kept. As we do this, we can draw on the concept of circulation to direct scholarly attention toward how not only objects but also knowledge about them moves. Objects, knowledge, and their significance for those involved is continuously circulated and negotiated, yielding new knowledge and meaning in the process. Thus, we might endeavor to elaborate both the spatial and temporal dimensions of provenance research as integral parts of contemporary art history.
In 1908, The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased from the French art dealer Kleinberger Galleries a sixteenth-century portrait believed to be that of Johann, Duke of Saxony, painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The Museum’s paintings curator, Roger Fry, had learned of the availability of this little-known work by the German Renaissance master late in 1907, and through correspondence with Kleinberger confirmed its provenance and attribution, which were attested by the eminent art historians Max Friedländer and Wilhelm von Bode. The picture crossed the Atlantic on the Courraine, arrived at the Met on February 3, and was installed in its galleries soon after. It was the first work by Cranach the Elder in the Metropolitan’s collection.
Today we offer two examples of academic knowledge on the move in tandem with the Migrant Knowledge blog. Anna Corsten looks at the reception of two German-speaking refugee historians in West Germany, and Razak Khan discusses the place of certain travel experiences in Magnus Hirschfeld’s thought.
In Germany today, Hans Rosenberg (1904–1988) and Raul Hilberg (1926–2007) are viewed as important pioneers in the study of National Socialism and the Shoah. Because of their Jewish background, they had been threatened by Nazi persecution and had emigrated to the United States.1 In the postwar era, Rosenberg’s work was initially embraced in the United States and marginalized in West Germany, whereas Hilberg’s was both praised and attacked in the United States, and ignored in West Germany. How and why did these historians move from the margins to the mainstream of German historiography? How did migration figure in their work and its reception?
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.
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.