Paper Trails: Objects, Narratives, and Visualizations of Human Deep Time in Early 20th Century America
Professor Dr Marianne Sommer (University of Lucerne)
Discussant: Professor Jim Secord (University of Cambridge)
Along the lines of approaches that in the German-speaking community have become known as Wissensgeschichte, in my talk, I present aspects of my current research on the establishment of an American mass culture of human deep time. The term Wissensgeschichte marks a turn to knowledge cultures, to the everyday life and practices of scientists and the adoption of scientific knowledge in living environments. Within that context, the circulation of knowledge in its capacity to allow for the generation of meaning, knowledge, and sociality has been revived as a unifying concern of research. Although there is no clear origin from where knowledge circulates, particular ways of passage and itineraries, the transformations it undergoes and the obstacles it meets, might be reconstructed on the basis of paper trails. Following such paper trails, I enquire after the role of a particularly powerful institution – the American Museum of Natural History in New York – and its equally powerful president – Henry Fairfield Osborn – in making visualized ancestors and lost-world narratives travel through the press, into different disciplines, writing genres, and private homes. While I am thus attentive to the unequal power relations, I also try to do justice to the wider discursive formations that shape the institution and its protagonists, as well as to the negotiations that seem to accompany knowledge production from field to exhibition. I ask how scientific knowledge stabilizes within expert networks that form around the exchange of visits, expertise, and proxies of archeological objects, and after its translation into narrative, image, and exhibit. I exemplify how, in order to survive in the course of circulation thus made possible, ‘our ancestors’ had to adapt to different cultural environments.
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