Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Books for the News, Commentary, History

The Collectors

jacket image
Polycrates of Samus, Pisistratus (the tyrant of Athens), the real-life cast of the television program Hoarders, King George the Fifth (philatelist), Jay Leno, the curators of the British Lawnmower Museum—certain people have been known to collect a thing or two. We recently schooled ourselves on the Freudian psychopathology behind collecting, and though we’ll spare you our findings, suffice to our cultural obsessions with objecthood doesn’t seem in danger of disappearing any time soon. Or does it?
A centre of European culture and a repository of the Western tradition that escaped Hitler and survived the Blitz may finally be destroyed by British bean counters.
That’s from a recent article in the NYRB about the Warburg Institute and its breathtakingly recondite offerings from the once-private collection of Aby Warburg (1866-1929), cultural and art historian, patient of Ludwig Bingswanger, and observer of the Hopi snake dance. As the Independent reports, the Warburg Institute might be foisted from its home at the University of London due to an increase in rent, which puts much of its collection either in peril or at the liberty of the University’s Dewey Decimal system. Warburg organized everything according to “good neighborliness”—we could not love this more if we made it up in our own short fiction. Hopi snake dance and astrology, sigh. Aby Warburg and Patti Smith: a running list of Chicago Blog fascinations, if you’re keeping track.
“Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; The proper study of mankind is man.” —Alexander Pope
The object stares back. Marshall Poe opens a recent interview with Ann Fabian, author of a book about another sorting of objects, The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America’s Unburied Dead, with Pope’s quotation from An Essay on Man (1733). The Skull Collectors considers the burgeoning nineteenth-century “science” of crainiology (Melville, we’re looking at you and remembering Ishmael tracing fingers on bone) alongside the battle dead of the Civil War, campaigns against indigenous peoples, global history from conquered places, and the tale of Philadelphia naturalist and skull collector Samuel George Morton.
Fabian was recently the featured author on the literary site Rorotoko, where she began her own short essay about the book with simple enough questions:
“I was curious about the skulls. Whose? Why?”
Moving beyond the poor science involved in Morton’s theories of racial hierarchy, Fabian uncovers deeper stories of the dead whose skulls he collected—this is the opposite of Warburg’s “good neighborliness,” but just as pressing in terms of context. Dead bodies matter. As Fabian says, much more adroitly:

The dead had roles to play in anchoring communities in tie and place. . . . Skull collectors liked to boast that they were not tied down by the superstitions that hobbled ordinary men. Collecting helped them imagine themselves as men dedicated to science.

And imagination takes us back to Warburg again—the relationship between science and objects and collecting, that hybrid art shaped by the materiality of our own bodies and days.
For more information on Ann Fabian’s The Skull Collectors, visit the book’s UCP site here.
And for a photograph of Eugene Boban, official archaeologist in the Mexican court of Maximilian, dealer of antiquities, and auctioneer of more than one fake Aztec crystal skull: