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Humboldt’s objects of knowledge

September 14, 2019

Humboldt’s Objects of Knowledge: Collecting in a Global Age

by Miruna Achim

What did moving objects from place to place entail in Humboldt’s day? Was Humboldt really the solitary figure as which he is so often portrayed – a lone hero who crossed mountains and studied at his desk in solitude? Giving her keynote speech “Humboldt’s Objects of Knowledge: Collecting in a Global Age” on 14 September at the Humboldt Forum to mark Alexander von Humboldt’s 250th birthday, historian Miruna Achim of Mexico City stressed that Alexander von Humboldt was also a consummate networker.

Moving a collection across the Huancabamba … and then across the Atlantic

Mid-August of 1802 found Alexander von Humboldt wading along the Huancabamba River, in present-day Peru, a “long day’s journey from the syenitic rocks of the Zulac [Zaulaca] Valley,” on the way to the valley of San Felipe, “rich in fossil remains and situated at the foot of the icy Páramo of the Yamoca.” Crossing the Huancabamba proved to be treacherous at moments. As Humboldt would recall many years later:

“We had no less than twenty-seven times to ford the Rio de Guancabamba, which falls into the Amazon. We were compelled to do this on account of the numerous sinuosities of the stream, whilst on the brow of a steep precipice near us, we had continually within our sight the vestiges on the rectilinear Inca road, with its Tambos. The little mountain stream, the Río de Guancabamba, is not more than from 120 to 150 feet broad; yet, so strong is the current that our heavily laden mules were in continual danger of being swept away by it. The mules carried our manuscripts, our dried plants, and all the other objects which we had been a whole year engaged in collecting; therefore, every time that we crossed the stream, we stood on one of the banks in a state of anxious suspense, until the long train of our beasts of burthen, eighteen or twenty in number, were fairly out of danger.”

By the time Humboldt and his numerous party reached the Huancabamba, he and Aimé Bonpland had been travelling southward through the Andes for over a year. Having arrived at Cartagena de Indias early in 1801, they made their way up the Magdalena River towards Santa Fe de Bogotá, and thence, to Quito, where they remained for the first half of 1802. By July, they were back on the road, closely following the impressive network of roads and bridges that had once articulated the powerful empire of the Incas. They passed Cuenca, Loja – renowned for its quinine plants –, Cajamarca – a celebrated node of the Inca empire –, the Hualcayoc silver mines, to finally arrive at Lima. By late 1802, they were on their way to the port of Acapulco, on the Pacific coast of New Spain.

But let us not get ahead of ourselves and return to that day, on the river’s edge, as Humboldt awaited, in fretful suspense, twenty-seven times, for the caravan of twenty beasts of burden to cross the swift Huancabamba. One false step, one unsteady rock, and a year’s worth of collections would be swept away: botanical drawings and notes on the Cinchona plant, based on long conversations with celebrated botanist Celestino Mutis in Bogotá; explanations of the calendar and mythology of the Muiscas of New Granada, by father José Domingo Duquesne; Humboldt’s first observations on plant geography, enriched by those of José Francisco Caldas, whom the Prussian first met in Ibarra; samples of rocks, plants, and a few antiquities; measurements and annotations of his ascent of the Chimborazo; descriptions and sketches of rivers, trails, volcanos, mines, and pre-Hispanic vestiges, complete with glosses on local legends about buried treasures and the return of the Incas. Notes, drawings, and samples would have to do when things themselves were too fragile, too big or too unwieldy for the travelers to collect. For, how else would one bring the Chimborazo over to Europe? So, today, from the distance of over two centuries, we wait with Humboldt, consumed with worry, for the long line of beasts and their drivers to ferry across a world of knowledge, cautiously, one mule at a time, a fragment of the Andes at a time.

View of the Chimborazo

Biographers and painters have imagined Alexander von Humboldt mostly as a solitary hero: a lonely man climbing mountains and crossing selvas, or, alternately, a secluded scholar, who, in the intimacy of his cabinet invented a new world. There is a tacit assumption that the specimens, notes, and measurements Humboldt collected in the course of his American travels were, to borrow a term from philosopher Bruno Latour, the “immutable mobiles” – that is, objects that stay stable across places and contexts – the steadfast proofs of natural and human realities on the other side of the Atlantic, which Humboldt, upon his return to Europe, classified, ordered, and disciplined into the thirty volumes of the French edition of his Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent and numerous other editions. The human skulls removed from a cave off the Orinoco River, to the distress of his indigenous guides, would become evidence for the distribution of human races; Andean landscapes, for the botanical and geological structures of the earth; American antiquities, for the cultural evolution of humanity.

Yet, Humboldt’s jitters, as he waited on the edge of the Huancabamba, seem to tell us otherwise, that no object has ever been an “immutable mobile,” a faithful proof, by itself, of the works of nature or of man. If Humboldt is worried, it is, precisely, because objects mutate. They do not have material or ontological stability: they can be broken, destroyed, erased, lost, swept away, stolen, contested, or hidden, at any moment. The tumultuous waters of the Huancabamba are a reminder of what the stakes were, as collections moved across, not only geographically, from one side of the river to another, from America to Berlin, but also linguistically and conceptually. Hardly the enterprise of a solitary scholar, Humboldt’s science was a collective and boisterous affair, socially and materially thick with other scholars, rivers, mountains, mules and muleteers, indigenous guides with thorough knowledge of trails and river course, boats, ship captains, bureaucrats, customs officials, translators, printers, and editors. The social dimensions of Humboldt’s knowledge-making – especially his experiences in some of the more scientifically relevant sites in the Americas – have remained largely unexplored.

Valle del Cauca

The enlightened circles of the New World or Humboldt’s archives

By January of 1803, Humboldt and Bonpland arrived in Acapulco. From this bustling gateway to the Philippines and China, they travelled north, across the Sierra Madre, stopping along in places like the silver-mining district of Taxco, before arriving in Mexico City. Humboldt spent a few months in the culturally vibrant city of palaces, as the capital of New Spain was also known, visiting academies, salons, laboratories, and cabinets, socializing with Mexico’s elites, and organizing excursions to nearby ruins and to places of geological interest. Contrary to the black legend that has insisted in portraying the Spanish monarchy as mostly ignorant, inefficient, and barbarous, Spain ran a tight control of its New World colonies. As early as the sixteenth century, the Spanish crown produced elaborate questionnaires and instructions meant to generate precise and detailed information – and, ultimately, a more methodical use – of the natural and cultural riches of its domains. By the middle of the eighteenth century, these efforts increased significantly and took the form of both scientific expeditions and the promotion of science in local contexts, with the mission to produce systematic knowledge about the empire’s botanical, medical, and mineralogical resources. Having developed the arts of bureaucracy – that is, the mechanisms and strategies for collecting, organizing, and keeping information – before any other European state, Spain boasted vast archives on a vast variety of topics. Humboldt’s expedition to the New World was but the last of a series of similar endeavors and he was therefore in a privileged position to gain access to the information generated in the course of earlier expeditions – this would prove crucial, for instance, for his statistical descriptions of the population, commerce, mining, and agriculture of New Spain –, to many of the people who had helped produce it, and to the institutions created expressly to systematize and centralize it.

Anguila eléctrica

In Mexico City, Humboldt was duly impressed with the School of Mines, which housed beautiful collections of physics, mechanics and mineralogy. At the School of Mines, he reconnected with Andrés Manuel del Río, whom he met earlier at Freiberg School of Mines, and author of an important book on mineralogy, Elements of Orictognosia. Del Río accompanied Humboldt on short trips – for instance, to the basaltic prisms of Santa María Regla. As a token of their friendship, del Río presented the Prussian traveler with the famous jadeite celt that remained in the collections of the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin until it was lost in World War II. A short walk from the imposing School of Mines, in the precincts of the viceroyal palace, was the Botanical Garden, which Humboldt found to be “small but extremely rich in rare natural productions” of “much interest for commerce or industry.” He also took note of the Royal Academy of San Carlos, where, he thought, it would make sense to exhibit preconquest antiquities together with replicas of Greek and Roman ones. Indeed, at the time of his visit, Mexico City was an outdoor museum of preconquest antiquities, which seemed to be everywhere, employed as structural and decorative elements of buildings and bridges. Not everything lay in plain view, though. To see the Coatlicue, one of the largest monoliths of Aztec culture - which had been discovered a decade earlier, but was buried again soon after, in an effort to stymie supposed indigenous manifestations of idolatry -, Humboldt had to appeal to viceroyal authorities.

Humboldt also frequented private collections, where scholars, both Creoles and peninsulars, socialized around antiquities and naturalia. He admired the collection of Fausto de Elhúyar, the director of the School of Mines, and was especially impressed with the private cabinet of Ciriaco González de Carvajal (1745–181?), a magistrate at the Real Audiencia, who owned “very remarkable oryctognosic and geological collections” and a “superb cabinet of shells, formed during his stay in the Philippines, where he deployed the same zeal for the natural sciences, which distinguished him in Mexico.” González de Carvajal was also an avid collector of antiquities and the promotor of the Royal Antiquarian Expeditions, which were being organized at the time of Humboldt’s visit to New Spain. Guillermo Dupaix, who went on to lead the expeditions between 1806 and 1809, was probably one of Humboldt’s most important sources on preconquest Mexico. Of Flemish origin, Dupaix had been documenting and collecting ancient artefacts ever since his arrival in New Spain a decade earlier, and many of his notes and observations were later integrated by Humboldt in his own writings on American antiquities.

These were the immediate circles that made it possible for Humboldt to gather things and information related to the natural and cultural histories of the New World. He would continue to correspond with many of these men after his return to Europe. The intellectual and political elites that opened their cabinets and archives to the young traveler were also nodes in dense networks that connected Mexico City to cities and villages in New Spain, and it is through these circuits of exchange of information and of objects that Humboldt came to describe, for example, the cochineal industry in Oaxaca and vanilla harvesting in the gulf of Mexico, which the Spanish crown kept secret from its competitors. So, when he returned to Europe, Humboldt was taking back with him, not unmediated fragments of an unknown reality, but objects produced through various processes of translation, exchange, and interpretation. His publications constituted one translation – in a series of translations –, meant to make the natural and cultural realities of the Americas legible to the language and categories of nineteenth-century European science.

Mexican and Egyptian goddesses: towards a universal science of man

Vues des cordillères et monuments des peuples indigénes de l’Amérique (1810–1813), Humboldt’s striking album of sixty-nine “views” of natural and man-made “monuments,” opens with an engraving of the sculpture of an “Aztec priestess” which Humboldt had seen in the collection of Guillermo Dupaix. Dupaix’s “priestess” reminds Humboldt of a similar “idol” he collected in the ruins in Texcoco outside Mexico City, and later deposited in Friedrich Wilhelm’s collection in Berlin. But Humboldt is especially struck by the resemblance between the “priestess” and representations of deities in the classical world. Her headdress, he thinks, is like that of a Greek statue of Isis he saw in the Villa Ludovisi in Rome, on his trip to Italy soon after he returned from America. Conversations with Georg Zoëga, the Danish scholar of ancient Egypt and curator of Mexican codices in the Borgia collection in Velletri, led him to identify the distinctive knot that ties the priestess’s hair at the back of her head, as an element present in sculptures of Osiris as well. Furthermore, Humboldt compares her head to those embedded in the capitals of the columns at the Temple of Hathor at Dendera in Egypt, which he saw in Vivant Denon’s recently published Voyage dans la basse et la haute Égypte (1802).

What are we to make of Humboldt’s readings of the “Aztec priestess” through object categories of the Old World? This is an analytic strategy present throughout Humboldt’s work, as when he compares, for instance, Muisca calendar stones and Aztec calendric representations with those of the Tibetans and the Egyptians. Ancient Egypt had been a point of reference for chroniclers of the New World ever since exotic artefacts from the Americas began to circulate in Europe in the sixteenth century. But, by the nineteenth century, following Napoleon’s campaigns in North Africa – in which young Alexander had wanted to take part –, such comparisons were taking place in the context of unprecedented popular and scholarly interest in all things Egyptian. Denon’s Voyage, one of the earliest reference books on ancient Egypt, brought the zodiac of Dendera to the attention of the French public, making it the focus of fierce controversies, which pitted supporters of the Bible against those who thought the world was a lot older. Humboldt, who was in Paris at the time working on his Vues, apparently did not take sides in the controversies. Still, the debates found their way into his comparative studies of timekeeping systems of the Old and the New Worlds.

Sacerdotisa azteca

Beyond these more immediate circumstances, Humboldt turned to Egypt, in particular to the category of style, to make sense, not only of preconquest antiquities which presented themselves to his eyes as a “multitude of bizarre and fantastic forms,” but also, more broadly, to make sense of the civilizations that left such vestiges behind. Half a century earlier, German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann had postulated that a uniform pattern marks the evolution of art, which unfolds, from origin to decline, as styles of representation of the human figure. For Winckelmann, the Greek male nude figure was a culminating moment in art; the Egyptians and the Etruscans produced imperfect preludes, while Roman sculpture as the tail end of the period when art reached its apogee. Building upon Winckelmann’s idea that style is shaped by various contextual factors, Humboldt proposed that the “coarseness of style and the lack of correction” of American antiquities – that is, their deviation from the ideal classical style – were determined, on the one hand, by the absence of individual freedom, and, on the other, by the fact that the peoples of America were at war against “a perennially savage and agitated nature.” In a gesture that brought together his curiosity for man-made and natural objects, Humboldt suggested that in the Americas, the shape of antiquities was dictated by the massiveness and extremeness of topography: “volcanoes with their craters surrounded by eternal snow […], the contours of mountains, valleys with their furrowed flanks, and imposing waterfalls.” Although he found American antiquities to be lacking in aesthetic value, Humboldt did not deem them to be “unworthy of attention.” Like the artefacts produced by the Egyptians, the Etruscans, or the Tibetans, they were particularly valuable as epistemological objects, for, he wrote, “they offer to our eyes a picture of the uniform and progressive march of the human spirit.”

It is by practicing an anthropology of diversity – to use an expression coined by Marie-Noëlle Bourguet – that Humboldt made a place for the ancient past of the New World in the universal history of mankind and made its unique and singular objects visible and available for future scholarly, political, and commercial interest. Humboldt took few antiquities back to Europe. His Vues de cordillères, however, soon became an obligatory reference for the study of America’s ancient past. And he himself went on to advise many a museum curator on acquisitions of American artefacts.

A parliament of things

Let us return, one last time, to the vision of Humboldt on the edge of the Huancabamba, to ask, once more, how things are rendered from one place to the other, from the Andes to museums in Berlin, from the salons of Mexico City into Vues des cordillères. Do objects of science and collection make any sense if we insist on studying and displaying them as ontologically pure and stable, and not as the coming together of a variety of actors, both humans and non-humans, that ferry them across geographical, linguistic and conceptual spaces?

Over a decade ago, Bruno Latour (2005) reflected on the word Ding as a common root for both “thing” and “parliament.” He describes specifically the Thingvellir, the Icelandic parliament, which held its assemblies, between the tenth and the thirteenth centuries, at the meeting point of the American and Eurasian tectonic plates, and brought together lawmakers, to legislate on the order of things, and ordinary people, such as merchants, artisans, and entertainers, to exchange their goods and services. The body politic, Latour reminds us, is “thick with objects,” and people assemble around them, not because their meanings are fixed, but because they continue to concern and divide their users.

Humboldt did not know about plate tectonics. But, like the Thingvellir in Iceland, where Europe meets America, his writings are spaces for assembly, where things he collected during his five-year travels in the New World function as sites for conversation, collaboration, and disagreement, for seeing, knowing, naming, and using objects. It is time we pay attention to the poetics and politics that make up and inform Humboldt’s science, not just for the sake of antiquarian curiosity or for the sake of writing a more fair and balanced history of his American travels, but because it is more urgent than ever to recognize today that objects continue to be matters of concern; they continue to be critical, dense, vibrant, local, and global. We need today, as in old Icelandic times or in Humboldt’s books, parliaments to make room for contested and divergent ways of thinking about things, assemblies strong and flexible enough to sustain democratic, situate, and deep perspectives on the objects of the world, those collected by Humboldt and those that will soon find their place in the Humboldt Forum. We look forward, with curiosity and anticipation, to the Forum as a space devoted to making things public, by bringing together a multiplicity of viewpoints on their depths, meanings, and uses.

Miruna Achim is Associate Professor at Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Cuajimalpa, Mexico City. She held this keynote speech on the occasion of Alexander von Humboldt's 250th birthday at the Humboldt Forum on September 14, 2019.

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