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Order and object: constructing collections in late 18th-century France

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The recent digitisation of a large number of auction catalogues allows a more intensive enquiry into the composition of late 18th-century French collections than has hitherto been possible. On the principle that we cannot afford to make a priori judgements about who counted as an expert collector, this paper suggests some ways in which this material might be used: 1) to construct overarching parameters for analysing collecting practices, which can serve as a baseline for comparing styles of ordering and arrangement, and 2) to elaborate more tightly focused narratives of the movement and significance of individual specimens, collectors or collections, drawing upon work on ‘object biographies’ and networks. This dual perspective upon collecting as practice generates some interesting and unexpected links between categories of collector often separated in standard narratives, highlights some trends in collecting within the specific culture under consideration, and suggests the potential of a pan-European approach.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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