Journal of the History of Collections
© The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
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.
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-
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-
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-
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.