Exchanging nature at the Australian Museum, 1860-1899
Presented by Dr Isabel Hyman
Land Snail Systematist, Malacology, Australian Museum.
Speaker 1: Vanessay Finney
Some of you have seen us present on this project before. It's a multi-year effort across museums to understand the trade in Australian natural history in the second half of the 19th century. So, Simon and I are working on the archival historical part of the project using various museums archive holdings to reconstruct the trade at a general level and for some specific items, countries and people. The other part of the project was presented recently in this seminar by Celia Kramer. So, they're using a material analytics approach to try and find the chemical signatures that might help tie specimens back to particular taxidermists or museums and therefore, help identify the origins and pathways of specimens.
The photo that we have used on this slide is by Henry Barnes and it's a juvenile Sumatran rhinoceros donated to the AM by the Zoological Gardens in Melbourne in 1884. And I've chosen this because it's sort of totemic of the complicated pathways of many of the specimens we are researching and the big gaps in their life stories that we are finding. This poor animal travelled far from home and through many hands on its way to the AM. It was exported live from Malaya to Melbourne but it died at the zoo. We don't know why it came here and not to the Melbourne Museum as it seems more obvious, but it's unfortunately no longer to be found in that collections, or perhaps its skull is still in the collection. Each of these touch points can involve a long and not always conclusive archival trail.
So far in the project, we have gathered a lot of data almost 20,000 lines for just the Australian Museum detailing collecting trades, exchanges, donations and purchases in the 19th century. With smaller data sets from the McLean Museum, Museum Victoria and the Queensland Museum. We've looked at the overall patterns in this data at transaction choices, edits, broad geographies and at some of its networks. And we've thought about some of the logistical challenges of the trade. So distance, changes in climate and weather problems with the size and shape of some of these shipments, and the need for trusted intermediaries and friends in the shipping business. We especially looked at how these issues were reflected in some of the disputes that arose and the ways these are resolved.
That brings us to our current work, looking particularly at the exchange of natural history specimens, its parameters, players, animals, and it’s scope. It's not the largest collecting mechanism at the Australian Museum, that's definitely donations, but likely the most important in this period, and certainly the one that trustees cared about the most and documented in the most detail. And that's for the high quality, desirability and variety of the animals that included and also for its extra benefits in networking and the trade in scientific authority information that went along with specimens. It's a global trade with museums all over the world. But also with natural history, commercial traders, and often with individuals. It's local too, with a robust local exchange market within Sydney and in the Australian colonies. Here the Australian Museum was a dominant player, and use that power to drive a pretty hard bargain. Globally, it had very little power or prestige to add to the exchange equation.
In an exchange transaction, specimens are swapped without the need for money. It's a sort of barter, something that was fading out in this period as globalisation took hold and economic life became more complex and sophisticated. At the centre of exchange, is the tool of valuation, and agreement on the comparative worth of specimens and information between museums or individuals. Of course, in the absence of money to make that measure, that's a complicated calculation and a matter for negotiation. And where there's an obvious power or prestige imbalance as there was for the Australian Museum with most overseas museums, the equations become a complicated mix of tangible things, so mostly specimens and intangible goods such as reputation, friendship, trust, and reliability.
So, we've gathered data on the item numbers for the trade and also for the number of transactions. Often this is a more reliable figure, as individual specimens are not always listed or accounted for within transactions. You can see here that the AM's trade was by far the largest of museums in Australia, especially compared with the tiny numbers of exchanges from the National Museum in Melbourne. Frederick McCoy clearly preferred to use his gold rush riches to avoid the messy personal negotiations exchanging involved and almost always purchased specimens. Our curators here obviously thrived on the challenge or had no choice but to engage if they wanted to build their collections in the absence of adequate funding. Of course, we're using these figures with care, since they're mostly from the annual reports and don't always reflect what actually transpired. But it's interesting that the trade at least appears to be fairly balanced between specimens, and specimens out.
The composition of the trade by type is also interesting and somewhat surprising. As expected, there are lots of insects and shells and birds. And these make up most of the item numbers. But there's plenty pretty robust trade in almost everything else, most often in big slots across categories. So under miscellaneous, we exchange not just animals, but equipment, so photographs, books, scientific equipment, furniture and chemicals. It's useful to I think, to see that ethnographic exchanges made up a very small part of the exchange trade. This is partly due to the garden Palace fire that destroyed the collection in 1882, so that it had to be rebuilt from scratch, by purchasing mostly. But it also reflects museum priorities with natural history, the clear and dominant business of the museum at this period.
And here's the geographic distribution of exchange relationships. I'm sorry, that the, the writing is a bit tiny on that. But this is a bit surprising too. The AM is in blue and you can see how important European trade was with a much smaller proportion going to Britain than we had expected. Local trade is very important too. Perhaps this was easier to organise, and complete with comparable specimens within known networks and local logistical infrastructures.
Museum Victoria looks like it did nearly all its trade with Europe. But this is heavily skewed by the large trades that happened over the course of the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880. Which most of these were at state level as a sort of animal led diplomacy. So sorry, Museum Victoria is the orange one. In fact, the Melbourne trade by numbers was pretty small. And you can see too that Queensland in grey, mostly stayed in its lane with its small trade very focused on local, colonial and intercolonial networks. So I'm going to hand over to Simon now and he's going to talk a bit more about what we think is happening behind the statistics and where our project is going next.
Speaker 2: Professor Simon Ville
Thanks, Vanessa. And I just say I've had a bit of a not very good connection this morning. You know, only takes a bit of rain on the south coast for all the infrastructure to collapse. So I'm hoping you can hear me, and if not, somebody can let me know. So as an economic historian, I'm very interested in how markets function. And one of the really interesting aspects of the Natural History Project is the amount of trading that occurred through barter or exchange. You know, we think of mediaeval gift economists have sort of been more similar to this and that we think of, you know, modern markets, economists like to think about supply and demand, and of course, the market clearing price, which determines how the trade occurs. But this didn't happen. It was only part of the story, of course, for 19th century museums. So that whole question of barter and exchange is incredibly, incredibly interesting, why? And why did we seem to choose this? What often might see antiquated version of obtaining some of these specimens they required. And as you can see on the slide, there are a whole series of possible reasons, not necessarily in preferential order. But the first few are pretty important.
So the museums is, as it’s always been the case, cash strapped, so wanting to build collections of national and international significance, but with very little cash. So barter or exchange, of course, provide an opportunity to obtain other specimens. Apparently, for free, there are costs involved as well. And in the 1890s, for example, you know, all museums, including the Australian Museum were experienced sizable cuts in their budget. So obviously, barter exchange, often drawing upon the large amount of local donations received was one way of building collection without having to pay for it, so to speak. Second factor is complementarities. So, the sorts of specimens that were freely available in Australia were obviously very different from those that are available at large other parts of the world. And therefore, you know, it's big opportunity to trade and as specimens moved from you know commonplace to scarce, they move across in geography. This obviously made it appealing because you're giving away something relatively low value in return for receiving something, which is high value in Australia at least. And to facilitate this, the museums develop these derived a list of things that they were looking for an exchange the lists before they exchange anything else to try and, you know, address the problem of how you how you find something that others want, and that you have to offer to them as well, as well as what they will give to you.
So that complementarity given the sort of geographical specialisation in many specimens, obviously, is an important part of the story. But it was also about collection management. So a lot of museums, you know, large numbers of donations and wanting to sort of restructure their collection and maybe offload some of their donations that they had too many have too many duplicates, saw also, obviously, an exchange trade as a way of achieving that. So that, you know, that was, you know, mattered a lot. But it was the exchange trade was not only about the getting and receiving the specimens, but it was also about the other elements that are associated with undertaking that trade relationship building, cultivating high trust networks, which were very important for a successful exchange trading and resolving logistical failures. So you know, if a specimen arrived in a completely destroyed form, having a semi replacement or a fairly cheap replacement was doable. And so that, you know, again, resolving those market failures could be achieved through barter exchange.
It's also demonstrations of prestige, of institutional prestige at the museum saying we've got all these wonderful lungfish or, dugong, or whatever to exchange the whole world wants and demonstrates the prestige of the museum. And also, of course, it was also used for national prestige, particularly at international exhibitions where large amounts of exchange and if you like, what we might call exchange diplomacy occurred. Ramsay, for example, turned up at the London fisheries exhibition involving a large number of exchange transactions. And one of the things you do see and I think it came out of Vanessa's pocket talk as well is that some of these exchange transaction between museums involve very large numbers of specimens changing hands.
Late 19th century, we know that there's the development of the international exchange and payment system for gold standard and bank clearing, clearing houses and so forth. In many ways, it's good for most forms of global trade that have a monetary basis than but an extra complication for museums during their trade. So again, you know, by bypassing the price system, you bypass a lot of these exchange and payment mechanisms as well. And I think finally, as well, that exchange trading, particularly between museums, embodied information and knowledge exchange, to the extent that it didn't occur in commercial trading, so you know, building up that understanding of the changing relative value and importance of different specimens, all features part, an important part of this exchange trade.
So I think we might go on to the next slide. Thanks. That's great, Vanessa. I assumed it was Vanessa.
So, you know, obviously, there are shortcomings as well. So we're not just you know, presenting the whys and wherefores of exchange trading, but also some of the shortcomings. And what is clear is that quite a few of these exchanges took a number of years to complete. I mean, a lot of that was to do what economists would call high transaction costs. In other words, the costs involved in negotiating, agreeing and monitoring and completing the contract could be substantial. And you know, there's several reasons put down there that they could have been substantial.
First of all, the real the basic challenge of any form of barter exchange, the double coincidence of once that you've got something somebody else wants in return. And of course, if you've got money as a common medium exchange, this problem is effectively resolved. But it's not if you're doing barter. Now the issue of complementarity that I mentioned in the previous slide, obviously, that helped, but it didn't always work often could take a long while to identify an exchange partner that that you could undertake a mutually beneficial exchange with.
And secondly, the question of value. Now, price is out the equation in many ways, but there still has to be a sense of a fair value and a fair exchange. And of course, that's difficult markets are often thin, relative values of different specimens change rapidly. Specimens are obviously often in heterogeneous conditions, some of them are fairly new to the market. Therefore relative price and values are difficult to attain for certainty. Now, trust networks and social contacts and all these sorts of things that were still important in an era of global trade mattered here in you know, so you didn't have to agree absolute value has to be what's considered within a fair range. And what we see quite often is sort of deferred obligations if you like, where, you know, you may be in debt on one exchange, but you're hoping to make it up on another. And that obviously, relies on a high degree of trust. And some of these exchanges that take place involve a very large number of items.
So one, for example, 1883 to 5, between the Canadian collector John Garnier and the Queensland Museum, we're obviously looking at the museums here. 522 specimens in exchange for 489. So, you know, all of them, were there different values, and potential prices and so forth. Therefore, you know, it's the sense of fairness and value in the package as a whole rather than individual specimens that matters. The other things about exchange trading, but just to mention briefly, that they're not entirely cost free. And we seem be to aware of this, there is obviously a cost involved in the whole logistics process of trading specimens, there has been a question of conservation, display, storage, and so forth. So you know, that there was still costs involved, even if there wasn't a specific price attached.
And final issue, one that we're sort of hoping to look at in an upcoming paper is the sort of imbalanced relationship associated with colonial connections. We think that maybe these colonial connections are now overstated, as Vanessa, I think, showed in one of her slides. But you know, you still get the issue of the British Museum, rather than willingly involved in an exchange trade expecting, you know, the, the colonial regimes to present their specimens for scientific assessment, rather than exchange, you've got those sorts of those sorts of problems to negotiate as well. So I think, you know, we've seen the data for the exchange at work that we're doing, we're seeing some of the reasons why, we've seen some of the shortcomings.
I think, if we could move on to the next slide. Vanessa, I’m very conscious of not running over time, or giving a chance for question. So just to point out, you know, some of the directions in which we were hoping to go, henceforth, the patterns of exchange paper, which we're really talking about now. And that's, that's almost done. That's a minor revise and resubmit with history of science. Third author is Henry Reese, by the way, I should mention, I think Henry is probably here today. And it's done most of the research for that wonderful data that Vanessa presented earlier. We won't look at the question the role of empires mentioned, just now, we expected Britain to be a big player than it was. So what are the alternative reasons for understanding the directions of trade? How for important are scientific networks? How important are economic determinants in, in working out how this trade occurs beyond just the colonial consideration?
Charismatic animals, I suspect that probably comes more from Vanessa than from me. But I think it's a good idea as well, to understand more about different values in different types of specimens and being trained, particularly ones with rapidly changing values, the so called ‘bling’ animals that are very valuable when they first become available. And I think what we'd like to do as well is try and bring it all together in a, you know, there's five or six articles that we've completed so far, trying to bring it all together in a book length study of the natural history trade in the hay day of the 19th century from the perspective of Australian and New Zealand traders, particularly museums, but hopefully also some evidence from commercial traders and private collectors.
So I think that's our next big task. And you know, the range of expertise we've got on this project, and the extensive number of museums, obviously, we started with Mackay and the Australian Museum. But, you know, we've now, as you’ve seen in Vanessa's presentation, we've now got evidence from the Queensland Museum, the Victorian Museum, we're in discussions in relation some of these New Zealand museums such as Otago and Auckland and Wellington. So I think we're going to have a really, really nice overall story of this train. And, you know, just in finishing up, I just want to say this is, you know, this is for me, as an economic historian is fascinating stuff, because the trade and the markets and natural history specimens line it's so, so different from any other sort of economic market I've ever come across the modern period, of course, which was beginnings of modern globalisation.
So if we could just go to the final slide, then Thanks, Vanessa. And so this is the acknowledgement slide. So, as you probably know, that is part of an ARC Linkage Project. And Vanessa mentioned some of the other aspects of project particularly senior creator’s really important work. Listed below there are the range of Chief investigators on the projects and pride of place at the top of the slide, the invaluable work of research assistants on this project. There’s Henry just mentioned, Jarrod Hore, I think is here today, Claire, who may well be here today as well and Nik McGrath. And you know, you try and do different things with grants but one of the things that is important as well as extending knowledge is providing training and helping build the career of young researchers. And I think we've done a pretty good job on that in providing research experience, salary and joint authorship to some really bright young scholars. So I can see times moving on so I better leave it there. Thanks.
Australia's cash-strapped early museums had to get creative in order to build, trade and grow their natural history collections. Amassing large local collections was relatively easy through field collecting and donations. But these ambitious museums wanted international specimens too. Working against the constraints of distance, finances, and visibility, their most successful tool for international collecting was specimen exchange. Australia's sought-after animals could be traded for international specimens in a worldwide, museum-led market. In the absence of money, trading specimens involved a complex and changing mix of the specimens themselves alongside friendships, scientific networks and connections, scientific value, reputation and knowledge.
As part of a larger project quantifying and mapping the trade of natural history specimens in the nineteenth century, our presentation looks at the surprising extent and patterns of the exchange of animal specimens in and out of the Australian Museum's natural history collections in the last part of the nineteenth century.