collection &
the history of science
in the age of global empires

Mackenzie Cooley
Assistant Professor, Department of History


Cosponsored by:

Dean of Faculty
Library and IT Services
Digital Humanities Initiative
Humanities Center
AHA! Making Scientific Knowledge
History Department
Asian Studies

About the conference:

Natural history was once the ultimate interdisciplinary pursuit. Before it became Knox Hall in 1830, Hamilton students visited the Cabinet, a reference to the cabinets of curiosities that brought together all of nature’s marvels. Human remains, American antiquities, taxidermied animals, botanical samples, and more inspired wonder. The Cabinet was a scientific oasis on a resolutely neoclassical campus.

Then the specialist disciplines came. The collection no longer cohered as natural history. Wonder had ceased to be a valuable tool of inquiry. Eventually, the animals went to the Science Center, native American regalia to the Wellin museum, books to Special Collections, and remains to anthropology, among other collections across central New York. Disciplines consumed the Cabinet, leaving vestiges and isolated specimens in their wake.

The Natural Things Conference is a renaissance of natural history, and with it the Cabinet’s ethos, for one short weekend. Building on the work of the Natural Things | Ad Fontes Naturae Research Group founded at Stanford University, presenters chart the expansion of natural science in the age of global empires. The conference brings together cutting-edge scholars of science to consider how naturalists aspired to establish a universal knowledge of nature between 1500 and 1900. The conference will connect scholars and students across the humanities and sciences by focusing on themes of collecting and the history of biology.

In the early modern era, Europeans sought to create a global natural history that could accommodate the plants and animals they encountered overseas into one unified system of knowledge characterized by a shared classificatory system. Between the creation of natural history and the age of Darwin, European scholars and explorers curated extensive collections of naturalia complete with exotic animals, plants, and minerals from which they would abstract the principles underpinning the modern scientific tradition. Non-Europeans, including the Ottomans and the Mexica, however, provided their own explanations of nature. Encounters between Europeans and non-Europeans led naturalists to challenge and expand their perceptions of the world. Natural Things seeks to understand how quests for knowing nature overlapped with different knowledge cultures, expanding the Scientific Revolution’s traditional boundaries. In collaboration with Hamilton’s DHi, the new digital approaches employed by conference participants will enhance the study of networks, geography, language, and objects in order to grapple with the global character of knowledge creation.

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