Friday, December 27, 2013

Made in China, c. 1903

Opium-smoking group, toy figures

Executioners, toy figures

Years ago, I took my nephew to visit the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. He was five years old at the time, and already a voracious and very astute consumer. He was an avid collector of action figures (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were all the rage) and he possessed an impressive knowledge of the entire toy category. So it was no surprise that en route to the Intrepid, he negotiated that we begin our visit at the gift shop. I was leaving on a trip to Europe the next day, and I asked him what country, were he to travel, would he most like to visit. It took all him of three seconds to answer, “China.” Why China? “Because that’s where they make all the toys.”

Probably 70% of all toys found under the tree this Christmas were manufactured in China, but in 1901, when German linguist and sinologist, Berthold Laufer embarked upon his three-year shopping spree for the American Museum of Natural History, China was only just beginning to modernize. American museums were woefully lacking in collections pertaining to Asian cultures and Franz Boas, the influential anthropologist of the AMNH and Columbia University enlisted Laufer, to change that. As the sole member of the Jacob H. Schiff Expedition, Laufer was charged with studying the history and culture of the Chinese people and acquiring specimens representing every aspect of ordinary Chinese life, including the home, commerce, the arts, and recreation.

Laufer sent back 305 crates containing some 7,500 objects, plus books, rubbings, photos and wax cylinder recordings. The haul accounts for about half of the Chinese objects held by the museum today. In the spirit of the season, I’ve chosen some toys, games, puzzles, etc. from among the 6,500 digitized items available on the AMNH website.

I started this post quite a while back, after attending a Bard Graduate Center symposium in 2012, Anthropology of Expeditions: Travel, Visualities, Afterlives. It was Laurel Kendall of the AMNH whose talk about Laufer's expedition in China prompted my own protracted excursion deep into the vast digital archives of the AMNH. There, you can see Laufer's own field notes along with thousands of objects you will probably never see displayed in the museum.

Box of toy insects

Toy monkey on a swing

Toy axe

Toy bow and pellets

Toy dog

Playing cards

Toy mask

European steam boat, toy

Horse drawing cart, toy

Insect kite

Fish kite

Peach of long life, kite

Two men, kite

Toy cats

Toy figure

Game ball

Magical blocks puzzle

Toy animal

Toy camel

Toy rooster

Toy monkey

Toy elephant

Toy duck

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