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Press Reviews

Journal of the History of Collections

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Book Review

Anne Haslund Hansen, Niebuhr’s Museum. Artefacts and Souvenirs from the Royal Danish Expedition to Arabia 1761–1767. Copenhagen, Forlaget Vandkunsten / Carsten Niebuhr Biblioteket, 2016.

isbn 978-87-7695-440-6. 256 pp., 170 col. illus. DKK 349,95.

To open with the observation that Karsten Niebuhr (1733–1815) never actually owned a museum is not to undermine in the least the wonderful volume produced by Anne Haslund Hansen, for she presents us here in remarkable detail with material that Niebuhr assembled but never possessed and which hitherto has never been brought together as a related group. The context in which this virtual collection took shape was provided by the ambitious expedition mounted in the 1760s at the behest of King Frederik V of Denmark (an enterprise that deserves to feature much more prominently than it generally does in the history of scientific exploration). The original publication of this volume as Souvenirs og sjældenheder fra Den Arabiske Rejse (also in 2016) would have left the non-Danish speakers among us little more enlightened, so its translation into English here by Dan A. Marmorstein is a real boon to English-language scholarship.

It was in January 1761 that the expedition in question set out and November 1767 when it ended. The rate of attrition among the personnel proved punishingly high, for only Niebuhr would make it back to Europe, the other members – a philologist, naturalist, physician and engraver – all succumbing to illness and disease along the way. Not the least remarkable feature of the enterprise was the degree of effort invested in its planning, resulting in a list of Kongelige Instruks – Royal Instructions – and a set of 100 questions the expedition was to attempt to answer; both were published in 1762 as Fragen an eine Gesellschaft Gelehrter Männer, a text revealing the powerful influence of Linnaeus’s recent Instructio Peregrinatoris of 1759. The final instructions comprised forty-three paragraphs of detailed notes covering the organization of the expedition, its itinerary, and the responsibilities of the individual members in fields covering biblical history, geography, and natural history: ‘useful oriental manuscripts, natural specimens and other curiosities’ were to be sought out, but scholarly interest was to take priority over matters of aesthetics or prestige. Sinai and the kingdom of Yemen were the ultimate goals of the expedition, to be reached by a route that would take it via the Mediterranean across Egypt and the Red Sea. In addition to examining the geography, culture, history and languages spoken there, the members were tasked with reconciling their findings with Old Testament scripture, and to this end particular importance was to be given to seeking out a series of fabled inscriptions supposedly left behind by the Israelites in Yemen during their expulsion, as recorded in the Book of Exodus. Transcriptions were to be made and plaster casts taken, while the inclusion in the company’s toolbox of copper saws capable of sawing marble clearly anticipated also the recovery of some more tangible specimens. No inscriptions were ever found, however, and the fruits of the expedition as presented here are dominated by ancient Egyptian antiquities collected in the course of the journey (but without the specific sanction of the Royal Instructions). These items, together with others collected along the way, were deposited in the royal Kunstkammer at various dates following Niehbuhr’s return and were afterwards dispersed, making their way ultimately into one department or another of the Danish national museums.

Perhaps of equal importance to these items – though not catalogued in the present volume – are the historic collections formed by the expedition’s naturalist, Peter Forskåll (1732–1763), assembled in the brief period before he met his death in Yemen. The 1,300 surviving herbarium sheets, along with fishes, shells and other marine specimens, form a poignant testament to the further achievements Forskåll might have made, had he been spared. Anne Haslund Hansen’s focus is on what are accurately termed the ‘artefacts and souvenirs’ from the expedition. A series of mummies and other antiquities from Egypt occupy pride of place in her text – not so much a catalogue as a series of descriptive and analytical essays on the individual items, all of them illustrated with stunningly good colour images – general views, close-ups, and comparative illustrations – by Torben Eskerod. There are also smaller-scale antiquities and coins, as well as pilgrim souvenirs, Arab clothing, a Yemeni dagger, Turkish pipes and fragmentary manuscripts. The whole evokes accurately the miscellaneous harvest of material assembled by Niebuhr and his companions: if it falls a long way short of the anticipated haul of inscribed marbles, it nonetheless forms a fascinating assemblage, beautifully presented in what must surely be one of the handsomest museum publications of the year. It also adds a welcome material dimension to recent historical accounts of the expedition by Lawrence J. Baack and by the various authors in Early Scientific Expeditions and Local Encounters (2013), the proceedings of a symposium marking the 250th anniversary of the expedition.

We have all learned from Paula Findlen of the complementary applications of the term ‘museum’ to both a compendious text and an assemblage of objects. If Niebuhr never had the personal pleasure of articulating his objects in a physical display, he could not have been better served in having them presented in this printed museum that will stand as a monument to his achievement.

Arthur MacGregor