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Colonial classification

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Indigenous environmental knowledge and language was recorded in the field records of natural historians and the artists they employed. These indigenous classifications remain in those expedition notes as they were excluded from dominant scientific systems when the information returned to European metropolitan centres. This paper retrieves and interprets ideas of this kind, from natural historical collections gathered in southeastern Australia in the 19th century.

Presenting the photographic encyclopedia Australien in 142 Photographischen Abbildungen, I argue that its author’s career (Wilhelm von Blandowski, 1822–1878) failed precisely because he tried to foreground Aboriginal classification in comparative and metropolitan, as well as particularly Australian, contexts. For instance, Blandowski illustrated new types of fish in 1857 based on indigenous taxonomies guided by maturation stages rather than species. The Philosophical Society subsequently censored Blandowski; he was sacked from his positions as the first director of Museum Victoria and the first Government Zoologist of Victoria, and died aged 56 in a psychiatric asylum in Bunzlau. I contextualize his findings as efforts to document and mobilize indigenous models within the politics of colonial classification and theorize his particular brand of troubled humanism, antiquarian imagery, and Romantic Naturphilosophie in the wake of the Humboldts.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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