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The Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, Buenos Aires Jens Andermann
Birkbeck College

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A whale's spinal column; Burmeister, Karl Hermann

In 1889, the North American naturalist and international merchant of fossil specimens Henry A. Ward visited Argentina in order to inspect the marvels of prehistorical times which, rumours had it, had been assembled during the last few years on the solitary primordial plains of Patagonia, and were now being displayed in the museums of remote Buenos Aires.
On reaching the capital of the Argentine Republic -Ward wrote in a letter to Luis María Gonnet, director of the porteño newspaper El Censor - one of my first visits was to the National Museum. For many years I had promised myself the satisfaction of visiting this museum. Thanks to the publications of its venerable director Dr. Hermann Burmeister over the last quarter of a century, its collections are better known in the United States than those of any other establishment of its kind in South America. His discoveries and descriptions of the great Megatherium, Mylodon, Glyptodon, and other fossils, have made us as familiar with these monsters from other eras as if they were modern animals. Unfortunately, the museum is open to visitors only on Sundays; however, I was granted the great privilege of unlimited access to all its showrooms whenever and for the length of time I desired. You can easily imagine the pleasure these visits made me experience. What would our North American palaeontologists not give for only an hour in the presence of these ancient fossils whose interest, which is great, is almost matched by their historical value, for they represent the eras of geological history? [...] They are displayed, in their majority, at the centre of two large showrooms, so as to facilitate their observation from all angles; here we find complete samples from different eras, of the Glyptodon, giant progenitor of the armadillos which are found in all the pampa, digging their caves into the very graves of their formidable ancestors; there are also two excellent specimens of Scelidotherium, another two of Mylodon, and a number of samples of Megatherium, these enormous tardigrades whose discovery has revealed to the learned men of Europe the existence in this part of the world, of extinct animals formerly unknown to science... It is sad, however, that such an important museum, for its intrinsic value as well as for its tradition, should have to store its treasures in small and poorly lit rooms with low ceilings, and accessible only across a large and tiresome wooden staircase and a narrow corridor; the locale destroys all the effect this unvaluable collection would produce if it were conveniently displayed and presented to the public in an adequate building...(Ward 1889: 145-6)
Soon afterwards, Ward would be surprised to find this very building only a few miles further east, at the new provincial capital of La Plata, where a similar if not even superior collection of fossils -as well as ethnographic and anthropological exhibits- had just been inaugurated in the staggering neoclassical temple designed by the European architects Karl Heynemann and Henrik Aberg.

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Museo de La Plata (lámina 2); Heynemann, Friedrich and Aberg, Henrik

Ward´s letter, then, testifies to a revelation and a deception: Argentina, he asserts, effectively is the paradise of palaeontology he had expected to find on reading director Karl Hermann Burmeister´s publications in scientific journals of Europe and the Americas, but instead of a primordial, lost world of giant animals the National Museum at the capital rather seems to display a state of science which, due to palaeontology´s very discoveries, has itself become prehistorical: instead of the bright, monumental palace of a natural history whose times have grown exponentially over the century about to finish, he encounters a naturalist´s study cabinet unable to match the scale of its own exhibits, the museum of a Linnaean science prior to the discoveries of Cuvier and Lamarck, which had resulted from the treasures from the Argentine pampas shipped to Paris and London in the first half of the nineteenth century.

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Fossil specimen; Burmeister, Karl Hermann

Palaeontology had added a deep past to the time of nature, one that had become visible through the evidence of giant skeletons such as the famous megatherium found in 1787 by Father Manuel Torres in his parish of Luján, in the province of Buenos Aires, which had been sent to Madrid´s Gabinete de Historia Natural in 1789 and was studied there by Cuvier. Darwin visited Luján in 1833, and in 1841, a collection of twelve cages containing remains of mastodon, toxodon and glyptodon, were sent to Buenos Aires by the surgeon and naturalist Francisco Javier Muñiz, who was hoping to lay the foundation for a palaeontological section at the local Museo Público (forerunner of the museum Ward visited in 1889), but which instead were donated by dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas to the museums of Paris and London.(Podgorny 2000) Recent innovations in anatomy and architecture had provided the conditions of possibility for these fossil remains to be transformed into monumental, instructive evidence of the new narrative of evolutionary transformation, introducing into nineteenth-century naturalist (and later anthropological and social) thought the dramatic notion of extinction: while Cuvier had developed a method of reconstructing and mounting osteological remains, the possibilities opened up by the use of new materials such as steel and glass allowed for the construction of spacious galleries able to contain the giant proportions of the otherworldly beasts. As Tony Bennett has argued, the effect of these spatio-temporal arrangements (the same effect that, according to Ward, had been spoilt by the colonial location of the Buenos Aires museum), was the production of a naturalistic sublime, a scene which, as we shall see, was to be interpreted in profoundly different ways by the followers of Darwin and those of Cuvier´s theory of catastrophism. (Bennett 1995: 185)

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Edificio del Museo Público; Burmeister, Karl Hermann

Whereas, then, the Museo de La Plata, where several of the young Argentine naturalists formed by Burmeister a decade earlier who were to become influential members of the intellectual elite of 1880, collaborated as collectors and curators, sought to transform this sublime nature into a spectacular allegory of a modern, pioneer Argentina, the National Museum´s decline as the country´s prime naturalist institution coincided, paradoxically, with the annexation of the southern 'deserts' and the discovery of unimagined quantities of fossil materials. Founded, at least officially, in 1812, and thus one of the oldest museums of the continent, the Museo Nacional of Buenos Aires -called the Museo Público prior to the federalization of the capital city in 1880-, had almost become the one-man establishment of its long-term director Burmeister, author of influential studies on the geography and fauna of Brazil and the Plata basin, and considered by many as the legitimate successor of Humboldt, his compatriot.

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Germán Burmeister; Burmeister, Karl Hermann

Burmeister, a former professor at the Royal Prussian University of Halle, had taken office as director of the Museo Público in 1862 at the invitation of Sarmiento, then Mitre´s minister of government, and remained in charge of the museum until shortly before his death in 1892. A fierce opponent of Darwin, Burmeister, like his contemporary Louis Agassiz (although from a contrary position as to its political implications) held on to Cuvier´s catastrophy theory according to which species were fixed, and only through great cataclysms (glaciations in Agassiz´s 'neptunist', volcanic eruptions in Burmeister´s 'vulcanist' hypothesis) was change in nature possible. While Agassiz was to deduce from this model of nature a social theory of racial segregation enthusiastically applauded by US-American and Brazilian slaveholders, Burmeister, who in his youth had sympathized with republican radicals and whose decision to emigrate to Argentina may have been informed by the political authoritarianism of Bismarck´s Prussia, held positions closer to Humboldt´s romantic naturalism and thus to the cosmological metaphysics of Argentine poets such as Mármol and Echeverría. In fact, Echeverría´s famous panorama of the desert in the opening verses of his poem La cautiva (1837) can also be read as anticipating the palaeontologist´s perspective on the southern plains as a giant void, a primordial moon-landscape ravaged by terrestrial catastrophe in the night of time.

But Burmeister was interested, rather than in designing territorial allegories for the purpose of instructing Argentines in their nation´s timeless greatness, in his own investigations and scientific reputation, and as many other foreign scientific 'seekers' in Latin America, resolutely put the local institution to his own use, selecting and dismissing materials for their value regarding his palaeontological and zoological specialization rather than for their capacity of 'representing Argentina'. (Pyenson 1985) Scientific excellence, though, was of course one of the objectives of Burmeister´s appointment and an important target of the liberal project of transforming a colonial society into a modern, dynamic nation-state. Towards the end of the century, however, it became increasingly evident that is was not enough just to staff national institutions with eminent scholars from abroad, but that their scientific production had to be brought into dialogue with the local context, and thus assume a more performative character; a change of paradigm which George Basalla, in an already classic, if somewhat reductionist, model of scientific diffusion on the periphery, has described as a move from 'colonial' to 'national science'. (Basalla 1967) But when, after Burmeister´s death -he never recovered from injuries suffered in early 1892, when he fell off the staircase remembered with fatigue by Ward- his compatriot Carlos Berg took over the institution and modernized some of its showrooms and displays, the Argentine 'museum age' had already passed its peak, and public funding was increasingly difficult to get hold of after the financial crisis of 1890.

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Portrait of Florentino Ameghino; Ameghino, Florentino

Even if from 1902, with Florentino Ameghino, the institution finally had a director who was able to match the obsession and entrepreneurship of La Plata´s Francisco P. Moreno (with whom Ameghino sustained a relation of mutual hostility and contempt), it was not until 1943 that the museum, now re-baptized, in memory of its founder, "Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales Bernardino Rivadavia", moved to its actual location at Parque Centenario.

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Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales 'Bernardino Rivadavia'

Civilization and barbarism

It was Rivadavia, indeed, who on 27 May 1812 on behalf of the revolutionary triumvirate decreed the foundation of a public museum in the city of Buenos Aires, as one of a range of institutions destined to impose an enlightened, republican order onto the remote port-town on the edge of endless plains. [view first decree, view second decree] A few ancient medals and documents were apparently united at the public library, situated on calle Moreno at the so-called "Manzana de las Luces" (or, 'the quarter of lights'), but it was not until 31 December 1823, when Rivadavia as Government Minister of Martín Rodríguez insisted once again on the creation of a museum at the former convent of Santo Domingo -just a few steps downhill towards the river- that any concrete action was taken.Rivadavia contracted the Italian physicist Pedro Carta, who was also to lecture on experimental physics at Buenos Aires University, located in the same building, as head of the museum, while the collections themselves were to be maintained by Carta´s assistant Carlos de Ferraris, a pharmacist and taxidermist who also owned the pharmacy just opposite the Santo Domingo convent.

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Manzana de las Luces

However, as if anticipating Sarmiento´s and Alberdi´s criticism of Rivadavia´s enlightened reforms as unsubstantial and fetishistic, the British traveller J. A. B. Beaumont´s Journeys to Buenos Ayres, Entre-Ríos and the Banda Oriental (1826-28) tell us a more precarious and, perhaps, more significant story:
Amongst the Republic´s projects of improvement was a museum, and to this effect the President included a 'conservateur' on his list of protégés. When this gentleman arrived at Buenos Aires, one of the first things he inquired was, of course, the whereabouts of the museum. He was informed that as yet no public building of such a name existed, but that a collection of natural history would soon be in his possession. For several days they made serious inquiries everywhere to come up with this treasure, but did not find any trace of it. Until one day a servant casually set foot on a wooden cage which had served as footstool to his predecessors, and which contained, to everyone´s great surprise, the long-sought treasure. The collection consisted of a mixture of birds´ feathers and animal skins, all much damaged by ill treatment and insects. There were parrots with their heads missing, parrakets without their tails -other birds with neither heads nor tails- and the much deteriorated skins of some wild animals. All this, naturally, was dismissed as of little use, and the professor commissioned to form a new collection. Thus on the days of fine weather, the professor set out to hunt for birds, other animals and reptiles on the banks of the river and the islands, and, whenever he had the time, embalmed them. A room at the old Santo Domingo convent was chosen as deposit for these objects and furbished with rows of cages with a glass window on either side, as well as with a collection of physical instruments. When I left the city, the collection had slowly attained a more serious form. (Beaumont in Gallardo 1976: 3-4; my translation)

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Displays of insects at the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales 'Bernardino Rivadavia'

Beaumont´s account would be merely anecdotal if it were not for the fact that, during the 1850s and 1860s, the humble state of the museum would be blamed by authors such as Sarmiento or Burmeister, on the systematic neglect of the institution during the dark years of barbarism that characterized the regime of Juan Manuel de Rosas:

"Only two hundred and fourteen objects -Burmeister writes in a short summary of the museum´s history published in 1864- were donated during the large lapse of time between 1828 and 1855. From then to the year 1842 there is no record of any progress in the Museum´s archives, but in this year starts a collection of delivery notes of trophies from the civil wars and other objects presented to D. Juan M. de Rosas, and which he had moved to the Museum. No more than eight individuals, and no more than seventy objects, apart from the trophies, are registered; and these constitute, so to speak, all the acquisitions made by the establishment during the large and awesome dominion of Rosas."(Burmeister 1864: 3)
In passing, it is interesting to note that Burmeister, having resided in the country for only two years, quotes textually here from a report written in 1856 by Manuel Trelles, speaker of the local natural history society, who, where Burmeister speaks of the "larga y funesta dominación de Rosas", had merely referred to a "larga dominación". (Trelles 1856: 71) Whereas Trelles had registered a shift in collecting policies from natural history to a partisan, politicized history of the federalist state, then, Burmeister -quite certainly aware of Sarmiento´s historical narrative of an epic clash between the forces of civilization and barbarism on the Argentine plains- rewrites it in terms of a barbarian intrusion and profanation of the crystalline order of natural history, just as the hoofs of the gauchos´ horses, in Facundo (1845), had insulted the paved streets of the civilized city. Natural history and the liberal nation, then, not only shared the same fate, they also mutually allegorized each other as manifestations of an order that was self-evident, and could only be contested from the position of a barbarian otherness. Actually, though, collecting and preparation of natural history samples had been continued under Rosas´s government by Antonio Demarchi, who had purchased Ferraris´s pharmacy, and who kept a diary of expenses which, among other items, regularly recorded the acquisition of glass eyes for taxidermical displays. (Gallardo 1976: 4)

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Manzana de las Luces

Following the overthrow of Rosas in 1852, Santiago Torres took charge of the institution as interim director awaiting the appointment of a foreign scientist. The University conceded another showroom and an old mansion on calle Perú to the museum, and in order to raise funds for repairing and furbishing the new cabinets Torres and Trelles proceeded to found the Asociación de Amigos de la Historia Natural del Plata (Association of the Friends of the Natural History of the River Plate), a society modelled on Mitre´s ephemeral Instituto Histórico-Geográfico del Río de la Plata, a circle of Argentine exiles in Montevideo which itself had followed the example of Brazil´s Instituto Histórico e Geográfico in an attempt to create a 'scientific' base for the nation-state. Thanks to government protection the new association succesfully invited wealthy Argentines and resident foreigners to make donations, and in only two years the museum was able to double its exhibits.

Trelles´s Memoria, read in the association´s annual session of 1855 and published a year thereafter, contains an interesting review of the museum´s contents and the order of the exhibition prior to Burmeister´s arrival. The museum is presented as an institution dedicated in the first place to natural history, however being at the same time "a general museum which assembles all kinds of objects which can serve the study of the sciences, letters and arts." (Trelles 1856: 73) The exhibition is divided into six sections, foremost among which is the zoological collection containing more than 3000 objects. The subsection 'mammals', curiously enough, contains an Egyptian mummy, complete with its sarcophagus, albeit, warns Trelles, in a state of decay due to Buenos Aires´s humid climate. Several anatomical displays are also contained in this section, although Trelles recommends their transfer to the Faculty of Medicine once an anatomical museum could be established there. Other subsections include quadropedes, fossils, birds, fish, mollusks, reptiles, insects and 'monsters'; all of which (except probably the last) do not entirely consist of local specimens but also display samples of Brazilian, African, and Central American animals.

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Skeletons of birds at the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales 'Bernardino Rivadavia'

The fossils, mentioned only in passing, are all from prehistorical animals "found within the territory of the state", apparently referring to the province of Buenos Aires. The botanical section, due to the fact that "the vegetable kingdom has no representative at the Museum at present", only consists of 68 samples, mostly from Paraguay, and the mineralogical section holds rocks and metals from Chile, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay and the Chaco, as well as a European collection acquired in Paris for the purpose of comparison. The collection of coins is referred to by Trelles, himself a collector of numismatica, as possibly the richest in South America, whereas the fine arts collection, in his opinion, does not contain any works noteworthy for more than their historical value. Finally, a section of 'varios ramos' contains, alongside an "egyptianist" statue and mosaic fragments from Herculanaeum and Pompeii, some Peruvian pottery and "arms and other objects of the savages of America". The limits of the collection, then, seem as uncertain as those of Buenos Aires, at the time the only province not joining the Argentine Confederation but nevertheless claiming to represent the whole of "Argentina". The museum, in a similar way, contains a juxtaposition of fragments from various models: it stands on an uneasy midway position between a provincial and an americanist metropolitan museum, and while zoology and mineralogy seem to receive the strongest emphasis, the curious inclusion of the mummy within the former section runs counter to an exclusively naturalist and continental focus. On the other hand, the marginal position of the ethnographic and archaeological exhibits is all the more striking if we take into account that indigenous settlements by the time began only a few miles south of Buenos Aires. The focus, instead, on palaeontological remains can possibly be read as a symbolic evacuation of this space as a site of lived history; to visitors of the museum, on the contrary, it would appear as one of silent, progressive evolution from glyptodon to armadillo, devoid of any human presence.

This reading, at least, is made all the more plausible as palaeontology quickly moved to the forefront of the museum´s colletion policies, parallel to the gradual conquest and occupation by white settlers of the southern pampas and the Patagonian plains. Shortly after the publication of Trelles´s Memoria, the directorship of the museum was offered to Auguste Bravard, a French naturalist famed for his fossil discoveries in the Auvergne and who, while in Buenos Aires between 1852 and 1856, had done some classifying work at the museum, but moved on to the rival capital of Paraná soon thereafter to occupy the post of chief inspector of mining and director of the Confederation´s never finished national museum in 1858. (Podgorny 1997, 2000) Bravard died in the Mendoza earthquake of 1861, the same year in which the post at the Buenos Aires museum was offered to Burmeister, who accepted and arrived at the port-city in early September, only to find that the new Government Minister, Pastor Obligado, had revoked his appointment. But then, Burmeister´s arrival at Buenos Aires had coincided with another moment of political turmoil that was only resolved with governor Mitre´s victory over Urquiza´s confederate army at Pavón the following year, so that, when the German professor was finally appointed as head of the institution in February of 1862, he was once again presiding over a provincial museum of national projection. Juan María Gutiérrez, the romantic poet who in his position as university rector had pulled some strings to resolve Burmeister´s situation, had previously received a warning from Friedrich von Gülich, the Prussian delegate at Montevideo, concerning the uneasy character of the eminent scientist:

B. is a very distinguished man of knowledge, but as a man he has his weaknesses -lack of amability and tact, and too much appreciation of himself. Moreover, he is unhappily married, which adds a dry and brusque aspect to his character. (Gülich in Auza 1996: 138)

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Academia Nacional de Ciencias

Gülich´s unpromising portrait would prove true on several occasions, most notoriously after the foundation of Córdoba´s Academy of Exact Sciences in 1871, in a series of several clashes between Burmeister and the younger naturalists contracted from Germany. Burmeister, while retaining his post at the Buenos Aires museum, had been appointed first as commissioner and then as scientific director of this new institution, a situation that led to continuous conflict and finally to the resignation of several professors from their posts in 1874, an event which caused some irritation in the international scientific community, and especially in Germany. Disagreements had arosen principally over the question of who the results of the investigations carried out by the Cordobese naturalists belonged to (with Burmeister sustaining his right to re-edit, and publish under his name, all contributions to the Academy´s bulletin, as well as to select objects collected by Academy staff for his museum at Buenos Aires), but it involved larger issues of the hierarchy between capital and province, or of personal versus institutional authority over scientific production. (Tognetti 2000)

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Members of the Academia Nacional de Ciencias (Córdoba) in 1876; Doering, Adolfo

However, the Córdoba crisis in any case had made it clear for the first time that Burmeister´s appointment to a central position in the evolving structure of Argentine science might prove to be as much a burden as a blessing.

Fossil remains

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Zoological and palaeontological collections at the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales 'Bernardino Rivadavia'

I do not want to let the occasion pass -Sarmiento declared in his opening speech to the congress in 1874- without reminding you that the Palaeontological Museum of Buenos Aires, under the wise direction of Mr. Burmeister, now occupies the first place in the world of science, thanks to the numerous, diverse and complete samples of extinct animals it possesses. Upon the death of Mr. Agassiz, lamented by the natural sciences, there is not now in one or the other America a more eminent naturalist than the Director of the Museo Público de Buenos Aires.(Sarmiento in Guerrero 1986: 20-1)
Palaeontology, then, under Burmeister´s direction became the master science of Buenos Aires´s public museum and, thanks largely to his influence, of scientific research, collecting and exhibiting in the last quarter of the century. In 1866, primarily as a means of fundraising for the publication of the Anales del Museo Público, Burmeister had invited some eighty distinguished citizens to become corresponding members of a new "Palaeontological Society of Buenos Aires", of which Gutiérrez was to be president and he himself the 'scientific director'. The association was founded that same year, counting among its members representatives of the supreme court, the national and provincial government, the university, and several branches of industry and agriculture. (Auza 1996: 144)

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Anales del Museo Público; Burmeister, Karl Hermann

The Anales were published between 1866 and 1892 in cumbersome but lavishly illustrated volumes of 400 to 500 pages, the first two of them (1864-1869 and 1870-1874) divided into twelve tomes each, and the third, published as Anales del Museo Nacional de Buenos Aires (1883-1892), containing five tomes. The publication, of which two hundred copies were printed, exclusively consisted of articles penned by Burmeister, except for a piece written in 1891 by his son Carlos, a travelling naturalist for the museum, and was conceived as a means to spread the museum´s fame among the international scientific community and to exchange for publications of institutions abroad.

It is in the first volume, published two years prior to the foundation of the Palaeontological Society, that Burmeister published an account of his reorganization of the museum taken over from Torres and Trelles in 1862.

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Sumario sobre la fundación y los progresos del Museo Público de Buenos Aires; Burmeister, Karl Hermann

He claims to have removed the most insignificant objects from the showrooms, placed there, apparently, rather than in an order of branches, classes, and species, according to their size and colour; to have installed new pedestals and showcases crafted according to models he himself had brought from Halle; and to have formally divided the establishment into three sections ("arts, history, and science"). The first of these, once again, is considered almost obsolete, as it only contains works sent home by the young Argentine painters holding government grants for their studies in Europe (some of these would eventually figure in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes when it was inaugurated in 1896). The historical collection contains some relics of Rivadavia and trophies from Independence ("legitimate trophies", in contrast to the ones introduced by Rosas) and, in the subsection "antiquities", now holds the Egyptian mummies (Burmeister mentions three rather than one) along with the Peruvian pottery and a series of 22 paintings by Miguel González depicting the conquest of Mexico.

But it is, of course, the scientific collection which will receive most of Burmeister´s attention, not only because of his own research interests, but because it is in this branch, and particularly in "antediluvian" fossils, that Buenos Aires is most noteworthy:

In the first section the animals of the actual and the antediluvian era can be distinguished, of which today nothing but the bones can be found. This is the richest part of the Buenos Aires Museum, as the territory of this province is the most abundant in these objects known in the entire world. Therefore Buenos Aires is the most appropriate place to form the most precious collection known in this part of the world. The most curious and complete skeletons of antediluvian animals shown in the museums of London, Paris, Madrid, Turine, etc., have all come from the Province of Buenos Aires. Today, however, thanks to the wise measure of its Government prohibiting the exportation of fossil remains, the Museum of Buenos Aires will see its collection grow day by day. It is a patriotic duty for the sons of this country to preserve these treasures of its earth, and to deposit them in the Museum of their fatherland. (Burmeister 1864: 7)

Burmeister was quick to applaud the decree on the protection of national patrimony in Latin America issued by the Mitre government shortly before and passed in 1869, prohibiting the exportation of fossils, a measure from which the museum was the first to benefit. In reaction to Rosas´s 'treacherous' donation of fossils to the main imperial powers of Europe, the new legislation underscored the nexus between the completeness and giant dimensions of the skeletons and the glory of the nation. At the same time as Argentina, by claiming for itself the fossil treasures unearthed from its plains, entered the group of 'civilized nations', an investigating subject rather than a mere object of science, this discourse also formulated a territorial ontology: Argentineans were the legitimate owners of these petrified bones because both humans and glyptodons emerged from the same, forever Argentinean, soil.

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Different anatomical features of a whale; Burmeister, Karl Hermann

In fact, however, Burmeister's palaeontological ontology of the nation, was only possible thanks to the fact that these 'national' relics had until recently been international commodities whose exchange value depended as much on the species and state of a fossil as on the scientific work invested into its manufacture as a palaeontological artifact. Bravard himself, prior to his appointment at Paraná, had succesfully sold a collection of pampean fossils collected between 1852 and 1854 to the British Museum, and in 1857 the Confederation had acquired, at the price of 25,000 French francs, another collection assembled and classified by the French baker and amateur palaeontolgist François Séguin, which had to be re-imported from Paris. A second collection by Bravard, which had been dismissed as inferior to Séguin´s by the Confederation, was bought from his widow and installed at the Museo Público in 1866. (Podgorny 200: 316-318) It was this collection, also containing 500 sketches and prints, which was to form the base of the museum´s palaeontological exhibition. (Lopes 2000: 278-279)

A fall from grace

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Germán Burmeister in the library of the Public Museum; Burmeister, Karl Hermann

Why, then, did the museum´s decline coincide with the very moment when the Remington rifles of the Argentine army were conquering the last remaining 'deserts'? Burmeister´s advanced age and poor health might provide a clue, as well as his unwillingness to let some of the younger Argentine naturalists (most of whom were his former disciples) assume positions of any responsibility at the museum which he continued to regard as his personal domain. In 1874, alleging poor health, he had suspended the publication of the Anales, reinitiated only in 1883 on explicit demand from the government.
The director is very occupied -the naturalist and writer Eduardo L. Holmberg ironically stated in an article for El Naturalista Argentino in 1878-, and the European publications contain, year after year, his numerous observations. The museum´s annals have ceased to be published, and it is necessary to read European works in order to find out about the contents of the Museo de Buenos Aires.(Holmberg 1878: 39)
The collections, moreover, seem to have fallen into disorder after Burmeister, immersed in endless struggles over space, library access and maintenance with the neighbouring University, had sacked his exhibition inspector Carlos Berg, for having accepted the position of professor of natural history without prior consultation of the museum director as his superior.

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Portrait of Carlos Berg; Berg, Carlos

The post was left vacant for the rest of Burmeister´s term. Younger naturalists such as Holmberg (director of the capital´s zoological garden from 1888) and Florentino Ameghino were systematically turned down by Burmeister, who in a review from 1891 dismissed the latter as a 'rural schoolmaster' whose palaeontological writings were 'fantastic and capricious', while his terminological innovations constituted an insult to scientific tradition: "Never has a similar offense taken place in science; every junior successor has looked towards his predecessors as teachers and planted his work onto the old scientific fundaments." (Burmeister 1891: 487) Not surprisingly, then, younger naturalists and amateur enthusiasts turned to the less authoritarian and more amenable Museo de La Plata, as well as to the geographical and scientific societies founded around 1880, and with strong ties to the University, in search of scientific exchange and discussion.

Burmeister, in fact, even had to struggle hard, following the federalization of the city of Buenos Aires, to avoid his own institution being relegated to the status of a provincial museum and being moved to La Plata, while Moreno´s archaeological and anthropological museum was to be nationalized. Congress had already voted a project in this sense in 1881, following intensive lobbying by Moreno and his earstwhile ally Ameghino. Burmeister, anxious to remain in the capital, argued that the sensible exhibits would not resist transport and, more importantly, that

most of the Museum´s objects prior to my directorship are donations from families living in the very Buenos Aires [...], as a means of giving themselves a patriotic satisfaction, but not to have them exhibited at another location of the province. (Letter to the Government Minister, 1884)
Due to a ministerial crisis, ratification of the removal decree never took place, and eventually it was Moreno who would settle at La Plata.

It is telling to compare Burmeister´s correspondence with the government to Moreno´s unending letters containing ambitious, and sometimes fantastic, plans of exhibitions, gardens and collections. The Museo Nacional´s director, instead, merely registered in dry yearly reports the entry of unlimited numbers of cages full of bones and stuffed animals, as if washed upon the museum´s doorstep by a tidal wave rolling through the ages, but without moving the solid rock of the old institution:

20 January 1881. Into the collection have been introduced: 50 new birds, acquired in exchange for objects from the country. 5 mammals. [...] 10 March 1882 [...] a magnificent skeleton of Scelidotherium leptocephalum, found by D. Enr. de Carlés on the coast of the river south of Barracas, until this day the only complete skeleton that is known, and in its perfect state an object of first order [...] 1 March 1884. Half of the armour with great part of the tail of Hoplophonus. A nearly perfect shoulderblade of Toxodon. Part of the lower jawbone of an unknown species of Mylodon, etc. [...] 12 March 1889. The most magnificent gift, for its colossal scale, has been the skeleton of the Megatherium given to the Museum by Dr. Felipe G. Senillosa. Although some bones are rather deteriorated it has been possible to restore the skull, which because of the presence of the tip of the nose in perfect state is unique in the existing collections of Europe and America [...] (from Burmeister's annual reports, 1881-1889)

Here, then, a scientific format of display is already, and forever, fixed; new evidence can only 'contribute' to, but never modify, the edifice of classes and branches already which will eventually contain it. In the last years of his life, Burmeister even seems to have returned to the model of a genteel, enlightened museum of arts and sciences; thus, in a letter to the Vice-President dating from 28 January 1890, and having only recently returned from Rio de Janeiro where he had supervised the installation of a Scelidotherium donated by the Argentine to the Brazilian National Museum, he requests funding for a journey to Naples where he wants to purchase a collection of Greco-Roman antiquities:

"My idea -he declares- is to travel to Europe to acquire new collections which are completely lacking in the country, although they would much adorn it and stimulate the study of the antiquities and the classical era of civilization."

aving briefly directed the Uruguayan Museum of Natural History at Montevideo in 1890, Burmeister´s former inspector Berg, an entomologist, succeded him as director in 1892 and was the one to finally undertake the modernisation of the old museum building, creating new sections of ichthyology and amphibiology, and appointing a sectional director for the geological and mineralogical collections.

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Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales; Berg, Carlos

Man, unlike at the La Plata museum, remained absent from this image of nature. Guided visits were introduced, and an altogether more didactic order imposed onto the exhibition; apparently with some success, as the numbers of visitors communicated to the Ministry of Justice and Education in 1899 seem to attest (44,334 visitors for the year 1898; 33,038 for 1899):
The national museum -Joaquín V. González, Minister of Education, affirmed at Berg´s funeral in 1902-, under the influence of his spirit, ceased to be the secluded herbarium, to become instead a generous source of public culture, thanks to the frequent visits and the wise yet simple and personal explanations of its tireless director and the continuous publicity of his investigations. (González in Lascano González 1980: 101)
In the same year Ameghino, who had resigned in anger from his post as subdirector at La Plata in 1887, succeeded Berg and, despite ill health, worked hard to convince the government of the need for a purpose-built gallery -a project not decreed until 1923, and not completed until 1943.

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Bust of Florentino Ameghino at the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales 'Bernardino Rivadavia'; Ameghino, Florentino

During the centennary celebrations of 1910, Ameghino was among the organisers and chief participants of a Congreso Científico Americano with large international repercussion. He died shortly afterwards in February 1911. The museum, by then, still occupied the uneasy position that had characterised most of its existence between province and nation, paleontology and history, research and education. However, its historical collections had by now passed on to the Museo Histórico Nacional, and the paintings and sculptures to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. An Ethnographical Museum had been founded in 1904 on behalf of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, and the Museo de La Plata continued to be the foremost institution for paleontological and zoological displays. The National Museum, somehow, remained among these foundations of the turn-of-the-century as a relic of itself; a relic of a project of state formation previous to the one of 1880, one whose liberalism still carried the traces of the Argentine romanticism of 1837, just as its naturalism carried those of a pre-Darwinian, cataclysmic nature.H

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