The paradoxical disappearance of ethnographic type objects reported by the French in the Pacific (1766-1842)

Bertrand Daugeron

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


    Despite numerous French scientific expeditions across the Pacific, from Bougainville in 1766 to Dupetit-Thouars in 1842, very few ethnographic objects - indigenous artefacts - are now held in public collections. The invisibility of such artefacts, or Oceania, brought back by French voyages of discovery contrasts sharply with the 2000 objects collected during the three voyages of James Cook and still preserved in repositories throughout the world. The rarity of archival records relating to the French assemblages means that few reliable identifications are possible. It is surprising that these collections, gathered at great expense, should have disappeared almost at the point of their creation since, in Europe generally, the project of assembling South Seas collections quickly became established. Moreover, the intellectual commitment of Natural History to the systematic ordering and methodical classification of things was already in full force. The discontinuous history of the first collections brought back to France from the Pacific is a remarkable example of the failure to develop a science of man grounded in objects. This paper highlights the contrast between English and French conceptions of a museological project for dealing with Oceania. It investigates the relationships between a material history of collections and the science of man then emergent in France. The disappearance of these objects from the late 18th and early 19th centuries must be understood in the context of the stalling of a project to conceptualise non-European worlds through cultural artefacts. This failure points to the French paradox of having lost almost everything, despite the formulation over more than a century of several museological projects intended to conserve, exhibit and exploit such objects.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)59-74
    JournalJournal of Pacific History
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 2011


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