Central Asiatic Expedition Flashlight and Canteen, 1928

Central Asiatic Expedition Flashlight
Central Asiatic Expedition Canteen

Research expeditions were an occasion to deploy new technologies. Many of objects presented the Seeing Truth exhibition were technologies used and sometimes conceived for use in seeking and producing knowledge. Pictured above is a flashlight and canteen from the 1928 leg of the East Asia Expedition. Why are such objects included in museum collections? Originally, the fossilized findings of the expedition were our desired objects of wonder. However, today, even the tools used on such research expeditions are objects of study and interest. The East Asia Expeditions featured many firsts including the first use of automobiles in the Gobi Desert, the first “moving pictures” captured in the Gobi, and, of course, dozens of newly discovered fossilized dinosaurs and mammals.

Image of researchers performing a geographical survey of the Gobi Desert.
Members of the expedition team survey the Gobi Desert.

Research teams dispatched to Mongolia and China included Roy Chapman Andrews, paleontologists, and a large support staff comprised of locals, often missionaries. The teams required motor vehicles, camels, camping supplies, and technical tools and supplies to unearth and carefully preserve fossils for transportation. Preparation for the massive feat required years of coordination and preparation, mostly organized and completed by Andrews. Andrews made several trips to Mongolia and China leading up first official expedition. The expeditions of the 1920s were organized piecemeal, because Andrews and the AMNH often had to return home to the US in order to process their findings and raise further funds. Maps had to be drawn and local guides, suppliers, camels, and governments had to be contracted. Planned excursions were often paused due to civil war and unrest in China and Mongolia, and efforts were eventually halted in 1930 when the Mongolian government came under Soviet influence and subsequently closed its borders to Westerners.

We may wonder why how Americans found themselves digging in the Gobi Desert and how it came to be that many of their findings found new homes on US soil. New generations of scientists and critical citizens have identified this practice as looting. The AMNH continues its research in the Gobi Desert today, but original specimens are no longer housed in the US. Once the fossil is uncovered, it is processed and replicated with plaster. Then, the museum returns the specimen to local authorities and scientists in Mongolia. In this way, knowledge is still expanded, but with more sensitivity to the people on whose land items are found.

Written by Katrina Van Dyke

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