Surekha Davies, "Inventorying Humanity: Overseas Artifacts and Cabinets of Curiosity in Early Modern Europe"

Monday, September 11, 2017 at 4:30pm

KG42 Klarman Hall

Europe’s identities – local, regional, national, transnational, and imperial – have always been entangled with views about outsiders. In the early modern period, European perceptions of distant peoples shifted from curiosity and admiration to a growing conviction that Europe resided at the top of a cultural, technological, and racial hierarchy. This was also an era in which making knowledge about both humans and the natural world became increasingly visual pursuits. This paper explores new ways to think about descriptive methods and classificatory schemes for overseas artifacts through the close reading of inventories and catalogs of early modern French curiosity cabinets. These works have received attention primarily as lists, their interest limited to the things of which they speak. Scholars have typically analyzed inventories and catalogues in order to gather information about the reception and consumption of objects. By contrast, this paper takes an object-centered approach to texts. It argues that inventories and catalogues were material and discursive archives that helped to constitute typologies of objects. The processes of inventorying human variety also shaped notions of European selves in relation to both classical antiquity and to the material antiquities of new worlds.

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