Collection fishing

How good curatorial decisions can end up distorting a collection

In this post I wanted to reflect on a couple of my recent experiences of being led down the garden path by later additions or interventions into archival metadata. I don’t want to give the impression that I think curators and archivists are hopelessly ignorant and misguided. On the contrary, these examples illustrate the kinds of things that can go wrong when everyone is ostensibly doing the right thing. So I’m not sure if there will be any clear lessons except to emphasise the truism that interpretation is an ongoing, open-ended process fraught with danger as well as discovery.

To start with, both of these cases were affected by the fact that many collecting institutions make only a very thin layer of information available online for the public. There is no conspiracy here. The sheer person-power involved in digitising catalogues and card files is no doubt well outside of the budget range of most small- or middle-sized institutions. Even those larger museums that have managed to transfer all the hardcopy information onto spreadsheets may not have not taken the next step of turning those spreadsheets into searchable online databases.

This is why, wherever possible, it makes sense to visit museums in-person (global health crises permitting). Quite apart from being able to examine the objects themselves, it allows the researcher to compare the online information with the in-house spreadsheet, the paper card files and the catalogue volumes. Very often information is lost when it is transferred onto a spreadsheet, for example, we lose the hand-drawn diagrams, the queries in the margins and even the different handwriting styles that can tell you if more than one person added to the description.

Catalogue entries of the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin

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Collection fishing

“The Secret of the Totem”

There is too much that could be said about this front cover of Andrew Lang’s comparative description of Indigenous totem systems entitled…  The secret of the totem (1909):

(Later spin-offs no doubt included The Hardy Boys and the Secret of the Totem, and Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Totem.)

The horror-house lettering gives promise of grotesque and intoxicating savageness, while the central image draws an equivalence between European heraldry and indigenous totemism with the suggestion of an erotic rite about to be consummated between a naked Sea eagle (?) woman and her Eaglehawk man.

It puts me in mind of an observation by Philip Jones, in the multi-authored volume Politics of the secret (1995):

[…] the belief in a single [Aboriginal] element or artefact holding the key to a complex of challenging problems was not just the province of anthropology, or archaeology or psychology. It also found expression in the popular literature of the time, notably in the novels of Rider Haggard. The Rider Haggard ethos, thriving today in the cinema, in which brave European men journey through forbidding country to unearth treasures and unlock mysteries to which even the savage tribes who guard them have lost the key, is revealed again and again […]




Collection fishing

Secret intelligence files as illuminated manuscripts

Tim Sherrat has been trying to automate the process of finding redactions in ASIO files. You can read about it here.

Some of the censor’s redactions are appealingly whimsical. Here are a few of my favourites:






Recently, I enjoyed some pleasingly artistic East German ‘manuscripts’ at the Stasi Museum in Leipzig. These two are favourites:


Inquiry into the defacement of Comrad Honecker’s image



Complaint to the national broadcaster: ‘The Black Channel Sux’


Collection fishing

All the best Philippines studies resources in one place

For some time I’ve been collecting and organising links to digital sources on the Philippines on this page. It’s been ‘under construction’ for about two years and I’ve finally got around to finishing the damn thing after a conversation with a Philippine scholar at a recent workshop.

This is the kind of digital bibliography that I would have loved to have at my fingertips when I began my research and it’s very much skewed towards themes that are dear to my heart. But now that I’m setting Philippine studies to one side for a while, I can safely say that the page is in a form that is mostly final. Click here and enjoy!

P.S. Below are a few images that appear in one of the texts included on the resources page. They’re from the English edition of Paul de la Gironière’s 1853 memoire Vingt années aux Philippines: Souvenirs de Jala-Jala. 

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Collection fishing

The figure of one of their diabolical chariots

Yesterday I came upon Thomas Bowrey’s 17th century A geographical account of countries round the Bay of Bengal, 1669 to 1679 (Cambridge: Hakluyt), which you can find on the Internet Archive here. It’s one of those classic gross-out travelogues (“The natives did what?!”) and as a former caption-writer I love this particular image:

The figure of one of their diabolical chariots

Thomas Bowrey. [1905]. A geographical account of countries round the Bay of Bengal, 1669 to 1679. Cambridge: Hakluyt.

Collection fishing, Writing systems

Marcilla y Martin’s ‘Estudio de los antiguos alfabetos filipinos’

I doubt that there is any other library in the world that will let any old schmo handle a rare 120-year-old document and go and scan it using the library’s own equipment.

If WorldCat is to be believed, there are only six copies of Marcilla y Martin’s 1895  Estudio de los antiguos alfabetos filipinos (Malabon: Tipo-litografia del asilo de huérfanos) in public archives worldwide. One of these is in the National Library of Australia.

Yesterday I scanned just a couple of high-resolution pages, including the brilliant frontispiece. The text of this volume is actually fairly unenlightening – grammatologists should not expect any grand insights – but the typesetting and illustrations are brills. In an earlier version of this post I extended my admiration to the reproductions of Philippine letter shapes – Chris Miller has informed me that they are actually serious distortions!

Marcilla y Martin frontispiece for Estudio de los antiguos alfabetos filipinos (1895)

Frontispiece for Marcilla y Martin’s Estudio de los antiguos alfabetos filipinos (1895)

Cuadros for script samples in Marcilla y Martin's Estudios de los antiguos alfabetos filipinos (1895)

Cuadros for script samples in Marcilla y Martin’s Estudio de los antiguos alfabetos filipinos (1895)

Collection fishing

“The colour postcard in Tahiti: A documentary study”

From the private library of the late, great Darrell Tryon is this curious piece of obscure scholarship. Patrick O’Reilly’s 1978 La carte postale en couleaur a Tahiti: Étude documentaire (The colour postcard in Tahiti: A documentary study).

La carte postale a tahiti

It begins auspiciously:

Ayant passé jadis pas mal d’heures de loisir à rechercher et à découvrir des carte postales de Tahiti antérieures à la première guerre mondiales, lors d’un récent séjour dans l’île j’ai songé qu’il serait peut-être intéressant de récolter les carte postales qui feraient bonne figure dans les albums d’un membre du ‹‹Vieux Papier›› de l’année 2050 [sic: presumably 1950]. Pourquoi attendre que les chose deviennent rares avant de les recueillir?

Of the 966 lovingly collected colour postcards in O’Reilly’s collection, only eight are selected in this 19 page essay. All of them are mind-numbling dull – only two have some interest as campy kitsch Polynesiana: a dancer bedecked with flowers and a tasteful nude reclining in a pond. The caption for this one is “Vahine au bain – A en croire les carte postales, la vahine passe sa vie à pecher à ligne, et à jouer de la guitare, couronnée de fleurs.” And adding somewhat wistfully, “Autre est la réalité”.

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Collection fishing, What I'm reading

Anting-Anting Stories, And Other Strange Tales of the Filipinos

Newly digitised is this little treasure from the the library of the University of Michigan, Anting-anting stories: And other strange tales of the Filipinos (Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1901).

Anting-Anting Stories and other strange tales of the Filipinos

I once got a hold of this as a cheap-and-nasty print-on-demand edition but now it can be read in all its original glory. Far from a genuine collection of Filipino folklore, it’s mostly a Boy’s Own series of adventure stories featuring brave Americans holding their own against superstitious, cruel and ignorant savages. Published in 1901 during the Philippine-American war the unapologetic racism must have had some propaganda value back in the United States, though one story — Told at the Club — is much more sympathetic. I don’t know who ‘Sargent Kayme’ was, but the Michigan edition includes the handwritten annotation ‘pseud.’ after his name. There is enough detail to suggest that the author was reasonably familiar with the Philippines to be able to describe details such as local architecture and the appearance of port towns like Dumaguete, but not quite clued in enough to know that gorillas are not endemic to the islands, for example. The front cover looks like a pastiche of various nineteenth century archetypes of the ‘savage’ from Africa to Australia.

Collection fishing, Uncategorized, Writing systems

An alphabetic Cinderella

The Eskayan word for ‘alphabet’ is abadiha, generally spelled ‘abadeja’ following Hispanic orthographic rules. I analyse this  as a compound of four syllables ‘a’, ‘ba’, ‘di’ and ‘ha’. This is fairly typical way of forming words for ‘alphabet’. Consider the word alibata from the Arabic recitation order of ‘alif’, ‘ba’, ‘ta’, abakada from ‘a’, ‘ba’, ‘ka’, ‘da’, and even alphabet from ‘alpha’, ‘beta’.

But earlier this year Kristian Kabuay drew my attention to the story Abadeha: The Philippine Cinderella as a possible folkloric source for the Eskayan word. I found a copy at my local community library. Here is the frontispiece:


de la Paz, Myrna J. 2001. Abadeha: The Philippine cinderella. Auburn, California: Shen’s Books.

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Collection fishing

Aboriginal Australia seen from Japan in WWII

[Post updated 18/08/2014. See below]

Discovered in the National Library of Australia, a 1943 edition of Baldwin Spencer’s 1928 Wanderings in wild Australia, abridged, translated into Japanese and published in Tokyo in 1943. This is the same year that the Imperial Japanese Air Force was bombing targets across the north of Australia. I would love to know more about this translation, how it came to be published, who was reading it and whether the publisher included any supplementary commentary from a Japanese perspective.


Above is a photograph of the title page. The NLA catalog renders this as Goshu genjumin no kenkyo/ Sa B. Supensa cho, Tamura Hidebumi yaku. I’m assuming ‘B. Supensa’ is Baldwin Spencer and that Tamura Hidebumi is the translator. Continue reading