Order of Multitudes

Capturing an Empire in a Room of Animals: Talking with Catarina Madruga

Catarina Madruga is an historian of science and empire and a self-proclaimed “museum person,” who defended her dissertation at the University of Lisbon, “Taxonomy & Empire: Zoogeographical Research on Portuguese Africa, 1862-1881,” in 2020. Her dissertation examined the entanglements between Portuguese imperialism and zoological collecting in the late nineteenth century, by focusing on the Lisbon Zoological Museum and its scientific director and curator José Vicente Barbosa du Bocage. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher on the project “Colonial Provenances of Nature: The expansion of the mammal collection at the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin,  around 1900,” funded by the Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste (German Center for Lost Art), and hosted at the Humanities of Nature Department at the Museum für Naturkunde, Leibniz-Institut für Evolutions und Biodiversitätsforschung, Berlin. We sat down to talk about animal specimens, archives, and interrogating uncomfortable histories in museum collections. 

Sarah Pickman: Can you tell us a bit about your academic and professional background? How did you first become interested in working in, and researching, museums? 

Catarina Madruga: I actually started out in the Fine Arts Faculty at the University of Lisbon, graduating with a degree in Design. I was very fortunate to have a talented generation of Portuguese designers as colleagues and professors, and I also took courses on anthropology, material culture studies, sociology of art, and aesthetics which helped shape my interests. Some years in, I had the opportunity to work at a contemporary art exhibition center as a guide, where I prepared tours for different audiences. That was an amazing time, and I knew that I wanted to work with museums. Shortly after, I started working as a guide at the Lisbon Zoological Museum, and I knew I wanted to focus on natural history museums. These are the places where the very abstract concept of nature is translated into physical, individual, specimens, and that notion is still appealing to me today. When I realized the Zoological Museum had a rich and underexplored historical archive I knew I needed more analytical tools in order to study it, and so I enrolled in a Master’s program in history and philosophy of science.

Sarah Pickman: In your doctoral dissertation, you examined the late nineteenth-century activities of the Lisbon Zoological Museum, with a focus on a figure named José Vicente Barbosa du Bocage. Who was Bocage, and how did he go about building the collections of the museum?

Catarina Madruga: Naturalist José Vicente Barbosa du Bocage (1823-1907) has a name recognizable to most Portuguese people, since he shares his family name with a famous late eighteenth-century poet, who was known for his colorful bohemian life and verses. In stark contrast, the naturalist Bocage could not be more boring and conservative in his lifestyle, yet I’ve found his professional activities incredibly fascinating. In my Master’s thesis I focused on how Bocage built his scientific persona around the idea of self-effacement and “disinterested interest,” which relates back to this idea of him having a monotonous daily life. Despite that, between 1883 and 1886, and in 1890, Bocage had a second career as a politician, working in high-level government positions in the Navy, Overseas, and Foreign Affairs departments. He was the original proponent of an international meeting on the River Congo, which then famously Prussian leader Otto van Bismarck convened, and which we know today as the Berlin Conference. I tried to show Bocage’s efforts to maintain an “objective” and therefore “disinterested” demeanor both as a private individual, a scientist, and a politician.

For my Ph.D. dissertation, I focused specifically on Bocage’s scientific work on African vertebrates as part of his study of “Portuguese fauna.” I identified the strong bias that the Lisbon collections and research agenda had towards Angolan vertebrates (Angola being a Portuguese colony during Bocage’s lifetime). I based my work on both published materials and unpublished manuscripts of his scientific correspondence network. I aimed to map the entanglements between nineteenth-century scientific practices and the Portuguese empire in Africa. By amassing a large Angolan collection, with many type-specimens, Bocage led the growth of the Lisbon museum as an important node within the network of other European museums with similar African interests. The publication of expert scientific knowledge about European colonies in periodicals and in illustrated books was part and parcel of the idea of an European “civilizing mission.” I also looked into the publication of collection, preparation, and shipping instructions which Bocage distributed to various Portuguese colonial settlements. These instructions engaged colonial officers as specimen collectors and correspondents for the Lisbon museum, and I looked at how the knowledge they gathered was transformed into scientific publications. I also looked into nomenclatural practices, the museum’s staff organization, and Bocage’s practices of writing up catalogues and publishing scientific works in French, so as to get the largest readership possible.

Sarah Pickman: You argue that the activities of Bocage and his network (inside and outside of the museum) weren’t just about making scientific knowledge, but about legitimating Portuguese colonialism, especially in Africa. Can you discuss how animal specimens in a museum worked to reinforce this colonial control and to obscure the presence of colonized peoples?

Catarina Madruga: Animal specimens in a museum are very specific types of artifacts. They represent and, at the same time, are evidence of the natural world. It’s remarkable that at the end of nineteenth-century, in the middle of Lisbon, a person could (on Thursday afternoons), visit a room full to the brim with dried snakes, alcohol flasks with reptiles, and preserved apes, antelopes, and giraffes. That was called the Angola Room, and it was inside a huge neoclassical building with a magnificent façade. Attached to each of these specimens were labels, inscriptions that provide a different type of territorial appropriation. The labels hold the scientific nomenclature of these animals, the locations where they were hunted or bought, and sometimes also the collectors associated with their shipment to the museum.

The animals were dislocated from their original habitats, but the labels provide a sort of new scientific “rooting,” a legitimation for them to be there, because only there—outside of their natural environment—can they be transformed into scientific facts. In order to get to Lisbon, these animals had to be procured, purchased, exchanged, fished, plucked, collated by trusted sources. Some of the collectors have known names, or were even heroes of colonial African military campaigns, and these connections with the claims of the imperial agenda were in fact hidden in plain sight, as they are still today in most natural history museums. But, these labels also hide and obscure the unequal underlying conditions in which many local African workers, in the colonies, actually hunted the animals, prepared and carried them, and who possibly depended on that trade to survive through harsh and often violent situations. The sheer scale of objects that exist in European museums and were displaced from places like Angola is enough to raise concerns about the role of those institutions in the upholding imperialistic systemic frameworks.

Sarah Pickman: You also discuss how, because of a fire in the original museum building in 1978 that destroyed original specimens, you had to reconstruct the museum’s nineteenth-century activities in part from a huge quantity of paper materials. What kind of paper archive did Bocage and his network leave behind, and how did paper materials like museum catalogues help reinforce the colonial dimensions of the museum’s collecting and organization practices?

Catarina Madruga: The accidental fire of 1978 was a huge loss. The Zoology Museum and practically all of its eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century collections were gone in a matter of hours. Fortunately, most of the historical archive survived. Probably in the 1940s, Bocage’s nephew, Carlos Roma Machado de Faria e Maia, had bequeathed to the Zoology Museum some folders and boxes with his uncle’s scientific correspondence and papers. These papers, together with other materials such as manuscript catalogues, were my main source materials. In Bocage’s correspondence, for example, we find his relationships with many European naturalists, side by side with the correspondence with the collectors (mainly in the colonies) who actively contributed to the expansion of the Lisbon collections.

Taking both manuscripts and printed materials I tried to reconstruct a possible image of the museum that once existed. In one particular chapter, for example, I explored how bookkeeping practices reveal the practical challenges of scale and scope in a zoological museum, and how the same specimens could be organized in different types of lists, depending on the type of knowledge you wanted to extract from the list itself. Cataloguing, in this sense, was not just inventorying, but rather a set of unique and provisional ways to organize data into meaning clusters. A catalogue of the birds of the museum can be the result of the enunciation of the physical holdings of a specific collection, while a book on the mammals of Angola will need to include (ideally) all references to all mammal species known to be geographically distributed in Angola. One list refers to physical specimens, the other to known and accepted species, even if you do not hold specimen examples for all of them. In order to publish books on the vertebrate fauna of Angola, which Bocage did in 1881 (Ornithologie d’Angola) and in 1895 (Herpetologie d’Angola et Congo), the Lisbon museum needed to become a center of accumulation of Angolan specimens. The collections do not exist anymore, but the knowledge that was once extracted from them resides still in the pages of the many articles and books published by the museum’s naturalists.

Sarah Pickman: In addition to studying the history of natural history museums, you’ve worked extensively in museums yourself, as a curator, educator, and guide. How do you think this practical experience has informed your thinking on historical museum practices, or how has your historical research informed your work as a museum professional?

Catarina Madruga: When I was a museum guide, I had first-hand contact with how people felt about contemporary art, and I was privileged to be able to explore with the public the fascination as well as the exasperation a work of art has the power to stir. When I worked at a contemporary design museum, for example, a single object could prompt a debate on the history of twentieth-century political, social, and cultural events. This multidimensional characteristic that museum objects can have is fundamentally interesting to me. As a curator, the job is also to study, identify and tease out all of these layered attributes and “use” them in order to create larger narratives in exhibits or books, constellations of meaning that also exist outside of the objects themselves.

When I started working at the Natural History Museum of Lisbon, as a guide, I worked mainly with preschoolers whose main two questions were: are these animals dead? (and who killed them?), and: are they real? And these two seemingly naïve questions, these contemplations about the hybrid essence of these specimens as part animal, part artifact, are still part of what I do today in my historical research. Most museum work is about communication and I feel lucky to have been in various positions in the museum workforce, because I think it is helpful to consider all aspects of museum work when studying museums, especially given the precarious conditions of most museum workers. At the same time, having been an outside researcher working on the history of scientific institutions has often made me wish that the usually understaffed and underfunded archives and libraries in museums, for example, received more attention and recognition.

Sarah Pickman: You recently started a position as a researcher on the project “Colonial Provenances of Nature” at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin. Can you briefly describe what this project aims to do? What are you most looking forward to working on as part of this project?

Catarina Madruga: I am indeed very excited about this project, not the least because I get to work with a brilliant team of people, but also because the Berlin Museum of Natural History has been at the forefront of discussions of how to deal with the cultural, political, and colonial aspects of natural history collections. With this project we aim to write the biography of the museum’s mammal collections through provenance research, while at the same time as we are working on how to improve practices of inventory and open access policies, and how to establish active and sustainable collaborations with “interest communities” outside the academic sphere.

The project is funded by the German Center for Lost Art (Deutsche Zentrum für Kulturgutverluste), which has prompted us to reflect on new ways of working within the museum, as well as outside the walls of the museum, in order to create long-lasting routines that can draw attention to the nexus between collecting natural history specimens, and the infrastructure of the colonial agenda. We want natural historical collections to be included within the scope of current decolonization discussions which are usually focused around sensitive ethnographical and religious objects or human remains. I look forward to this project’s contribution to the dialogue with different communities outside of academia, and to helping build new standards of practice in colonial provenance studies.