An Empire of Things – Exotische Objekte im »Musaeum« der Royal Society
Exotic objects in early modern museums brought a glimpse of the wider world to those who had stayed at home. Many collectors saw these objects as a ‘window’ that allowed the observer to study distant countries – an interpretation that has been adopted by recent research. A closer look at the ‘musaeum’ of the Royal Society of London, however, reveals a wide gap between these ambitions and the actual practice of the fellows. Their plans for the scientific study of exotic collectables were thwarted by problems with the transport, documentation and conservation of the objects as well as by strategic decisions of the colonial population. Correspondents such as John Winthrop Jr. took advantage of the European collector’s ideas of natural magic and ‘otherness’ to steer them away from more sensitive information. The Royal Society ultimately failed to make use of their ’empire of things’ for the purposes of science or colonial enterprise. Instead of serving as a window on distant worlds the musaeum’s exotic objects formed a blank canvas ready to be filled with European fantasies.