Dr. Berthold Laufer (left) with two men and one boy. All in Chinese costume or dress. Hankow, ca. 1904. Tea cups and pipe on table. © The Field Museum, A98299

In 1904, after returning to the Museum from a solo, grueling, and fairly astonishing three-year expedition to China, the young Sinologist Berthold Laufer began to analyze and write up his findings. He had managed to collect over 7,500 objects, roughly half the current Chinese collections, on a budget of only $18,000. This is even more extraordinary considering that his total expenditure would not buy even a modest piece of Ming porcelain today. 

A slim, beaky, and intense scholar, Laufer had relished his work in China, making copious notes and sending home long, lively letters full of keen observations. While hardly a robust man by any means, he had traveled by donkey cart, junk, and horseback, absorbing society down to the minutest level. “Chinese culture is in my opinion as good as ours and in many cases even better…if I regret anything it is that I was not born Chinese.” (1) 

Thus Laufer’s galley for the “Chinese Hall,” is meticulously packed with information.  From notes on archery, flower pots, fans, cloisonné, roof bricks, hairstyles, eye shades, charitable organizations, cake molds, hams sent as presents, falconry, toys, dice, sports, kites, tools of all kinds, “an almost endless variety of knives for cutting paper,” to pigeon whistles, his curiosity knew no bounds. Laufer’s observations are fascinating. “Wallpaper is a Chinese invention.”  “The Chinese and the French are the only people on the globe who have made cooking an art.” (2) His Guide is so remarkable that it reads almost as a primer to Chinese life rather than to the interpretation of a museum hall.  

Laufer’s Guide to the Southwest Gallery (Chinese Hall), page 1 (part I): prefatory note, stone carvings and metal drums. From AMNH Anthropology Archives.

Sadly, the galley was never published. Heavily marked-up in three colors of ink, it is a fascinating read and can be found online. Why was this masterful interpretation of such an important Collection, made only a few decades into the Museum’s history, abandoned? Possibly this was due to lack of funding, or to Museum President Morris Jesup’s 1906 decision to stop collecting in China. At this key moment, the board of trustees declared that AMNH would be a museum of natural history only. (3) 

It must have been a heart-breaking turn for Laufer, although we have no correspondence or documentation of his reaction. The following year, he moved to Chicago and began a highly successful career at the Field Museum as Curator of Anthropology. There, he continued working at a break-neck pace, regularly writing 10-20 books and scholarly articles every year. He famously kept two desks piled with papers, turning his swivel chair back and forth between them. Ranging from a monograph on jade still used today, to a guide to singing crickets, he was the outstanding Sinologist in his field.  

A formal and introverted man, it must have seemed the honorable thing to leave all his hard work on the table at AMNH – and then go write over 200 other titles (in three languages) at the Field! In anthropology and museology, Laufer’s enduring impact was to interpret the words and voices of those whose heritage was on display, and to teach viewers to see an artifact in the same light as its maker. (4) More than just a intriguing read, the time is ripe to re-interpret Laufer’s Guide.

References

  1. Expedition to China correspondence, 1900-1904, AMNH Special Collections, Mss .E973 
  2. Laufer’s Guide to the South West Gallery (Chinese Hall), p. 17, anthro.amnh.org/anthropology/databases/archives/LauferGuide.cfm 
  3. Stalberg, Roberta H., “Berthold Laufer’s China Campaign,” Natural History, 2/1983, p. 39
  4. Bronson, Bennet, “Berthold Laufer,” in Fieldiana, Ch. 9, The Field Museum, 2003, p. 126 

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