This episode throws light on von Tschudi’s colonial attitude to doing things: even though colonisation was effectively over and the young Andean nations had already won their independence from Spain, von Tschudi and other explorers had no reservations about plundering objects from local cultures.
“The neo-colonisation of Latin America did not occur through weapons,” Bartoletti explains. “Rather, gentlemen like von Tschudi exerted their power through science, networking with local elites, business relationships and cartography.” Bartoletti’s own attitude towards von Tschudi is therefore fairly ambivalent: on the one hand he is repulsed by a worldview so deeply entrenched in colonialism and belief in one’s own superiority over indigenous cultures. On the other hand, he is fascinated by the Swiss explorer’s vast knowledge, irrepressible creative energy and impressive knowledge of languages.
At the same time, he can recognise parallels with his own life: the passion for languages and linguistics, the cosmopolitan background, his writing, as a means of recording the world in words. “Sometimes I have the feeling that he chose me for this research, rather than the other way round,” jokes Bartoletti.
Taking students on museum visits
The postdoc used the first five months of his two-year ETH Fellowship to travel around with the country with his Swiss railcard, visiting as many as possible archives and collections that relate to his research. “An extremely pleasant way to get to know Switzerland better.” He was very impressed by the sheer volume, diversity and good condition of local collections. “There’s still too much to do!”, says Bartoletti. He is repeatedly coming across untapped writings and objects that provide insights into links between Switzerland and Latin America. “These sources not only hold fantastic potential for a global history of Switzerland and Latin America, but equally for a global history of science.”
He is currently sharing his fascination for local collections with his students attending his seminars on biographies of scientific objects and their place in the global narratives. Bartoletti holds most of his seminars in Swiss museums and collections. “When we learn to read these critically, they tell us stories about complex global interconnections,” Bartoletti concludes. “Stories which in some cases also challenge our current perceptions of Swiss and Latin American identities.”