The Ark and the Archive.
Between the mid-seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries, the figure of Noah’s Ark played an intriguing role in guiding principles of preserving, ordering and interpreting collections of natural and artificial commodities. Three exemplary collections are chosen to bring out this relation between the archival and the ambiguous character of such assemblages of goods and specimens: projects to make sense of naval antiquity in the early modern maritime world of Pepys and his colleagues; the exchange of goods between European and Polynesian navigators in the wake of the British entry into the Pacific at the period of Cook’s voyages; and the notorious collections of British artefacts shipped to China in the East India Company’s frustrated embassy of 1793. In each case, the temporal and historical ambiguities of the elements making up such collections were dramatised through the challenges of placing them in providentialist and political histories of navigation and technical prowess. Such episodes, which each had important literary and ideological aftermaths, help clarify the equivocation that often governed cross-cultural traffic in the classical age.