The story of the making of a thesis: my viva presentation

It eventually took place last Friday, 29 November 2019: it was the closing day, moment, of my time at the EUI. I defended my doctoral thesis “Capital Nature. A history of French municipal museums of natural history, 1795-1870”.
My examining board was composed of my supervisor and co-supervisor, Stéphane Van Damme (EUI, Florence) and Antonella Romano (EHESS, Paris), together with Lucy Riall (EUI, Florence), Hélène Blais (ENS, Paris) and John Tresch (The Warburg Institute, London).

For the first time in a doctoral lifetime, I had written every single word I wanted to pronounce. In my speaker’s habits, I usually go with some notes, which I more or less stay in line with / away from. It had proved more or less efficient, especially in passing very precise conceptual thoughts. I opted for security of having my text all written up to avoid hemming and hawing in a moment I felt I needed to keep control. I feared I would lose the vivacity of my talks – but everyone be reassured, I made sure there was the necessary dose of sarcasm where needed. I believe the discussion went well. By all means, it was a beautiful moment.

“I am pleased and honoured to finally present my work today. Pleased to see it coming to a close. Honoured to see you all as my examining board members. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has come, sometimes a very long way to listen to me discuss the conclusions of this five-year-long doctoral research project.
I have a special thought for those who had wished to come but for various reasons, could not make it.

With this opening presentation, I would like to take the chance of explaining, or perhaps further explain, to those who have known me and assisted me in the course of those years, how I came to work on dead animals and inanimate rocks sitting on the shelves of museums which existed in the nineteenth century, and have been long gone.
Then I will highlight what I believe have been the main contributions of this research and how it unlatches doors in terms of future research.

My point here is to think reflexively about the process of making the thesis, and about the process of me weaving ideas, thoughts, materials and people’s agencies into this work. By no means am I trying to essentialise or teleologise about the outcome of the research.

So this is how this topic happened, that is, a history of natural history museums, in the nineteenth century, in the cities of Toulouse / Lyon / Nantes.

A latecomer to the doctoral party

If I was trained a historian, it was not really the initial plan. I had destined myself to study English literature and languages (Russian!).
I then followed the current and became a teacher.
Not that this was an early vocation, but I enjoyed very much thinking of how to make sense of what I was teaching, how to pass on, or rather, develop knowledge with students who were generally reluctant to learning or certainly not born historians or geographers.
Because yes, at that time the main topic I taught was geography.
I used to teach anglophones, in English, a curriculum elaborated mostly by the French ministry. Was faced the first night of the eve of my first course with problems such as “oh, but how can I translate métropolisation?” Or worse, the dreaded aménagement?
This experience was essential because first and foremost, it brought me, in very practical terms, to think about what knowledge was, who I was / what I represented to “deliver” or perhaps “mediate” this knowledge.

I then decided to move on. I started elaborating a research project on “€œForeigners in Strasbourg in the eighteenth century”€ (I was an early modernist in that other life). I had to realise this could not work: non-standardised German writing (command of which was insufficient) was illegible to me. I needed to change topics.
Not the approach though, my bottling myself with Geography all those years had made me not a believer of the unquestioned strength of the spatial approach, but I nurtured a wholehearted curiosity and sheer interest about how this could be merged with the study of the past.

How I came to natural history collections, how and when it had clicked that that was going to my topic of research, I cannot remember (!).
And I have tried many times to recollect. Certainly did it come up in a discussion with Isabelle Laboulais, my professor back in Strasbourg. I was probably sitting in her office and I probably said something like “€œmmmh pourquoi pas“, “€œlet me think about this” and there I was entering the world of history of science, which was entirely unknown to me.

I don’t think I had measured how much I would enjoy that, as it all started.
Then I was accepted as a doctoral researcher in Florence. This was definitely game changing to me.
Not only did I have Florence and the Tuscan hills, but I also had a fully-funded research position in one of the most structured PhD programmes I know about. But perhaps more importantly, I received the confidence of Stéphane Van Damme and Antonella Romano, in a moment I was not at all certain of what I was actually doing there nor where I was going.
I would like to underline that those conditions of stability and trust were absolutely essential so that I could elaborate my work and come to you today with my results.

Starting with the true investigation: a recent modernist

It took at least another year for the research project to take actual form and to become a modernist or a dix-neuvièmiste€. My lack of enthusiasm in embracing this new identity was notable from the graduality in which I added decades to my period of study. This is visible in the gradual changing titles of my compulsory submissions throughout the doctoral programme: it started as 1795-1815, to 1830, to 1850, pushed it a little further to 1860. And finally accepted reality : it had to stretch until 1870.

I had indeed first started with a topic rooted in the French revolutionary years. I wished to study the circulation of naturalist knowledge through the perspective of the movement of collections of natural history as the scale of the city. There came the first obstacle: the archival material was too scarce or already beautifully analysed by Pierre-Yves Lacour.
And further ahead in time, there lay immense quantities of material, barely touched, about museums and collections of fnatural history throughout the nineteenth-century and further.

This is how this research turned out to be a study on natural history in the nineteenth-century – which I must say, I now consider is far more interesting than the initial project !

The main contributions of the thesis

Chapter 1 shows how provincial cities could be duly regarded as anchor-points for natural knowledge, far from all-encompassing models, especially the Parisian ones, provided that one accepted to not look for anything specific (the big names? The big controversies?) but considered what was there and refrained from extrapolating. In a few words: accepting the distance.

In the second chapter, I insisted on the municipal nature of the museum, which is but a salient characteristic. In the course of the nineteenth century, the authority of the museum was not only built, but it was built primarily in relation to the concomitant construction of the authority of local government.
Through this, I showed that natural history was not considered essential, its importance had to be negotiated to keep sustainable funding and the museum institution as such, was not never a given: it was by making the natural collection a boundary object straddling across the lines of demarcation between the administrative and the scholarly power that the (questionable) permanence of the museum could be secured – at least in immediate terms (ironically).

Chapter 3 takes this claim further by examining the fragility and non-durability of the museum. Possibly the closest section to what used to be the initial plan of a study of circulation of natural knowledge within cities by means of paying particular attention to the material and the environmental depth and how this was worked out into the social and physical depth of the city.

Putting into question the material and social existence of the museum brought me think of the limits of the museum, quite practically. The fourth chapter responds to this interrogation by delineating the form of the space influenced by the museum and sought to see what were the instruments and practices of this influence entailed.
This chapter is the one I probably invested more time in and was possibly the one I enjoyed preparing and writing the most. I do not know if it now stands as my favourite, but it was central in my approach.
All three sites of provided excellent material on the space of the museum beyond its wall. I must say, I never expected to find such leads. I started this work about museums thinking of them as closed containers. I had never envisaged to turn the box inside out. And yet, what I initially considered “influence” appeared as a much more complex system of place-making which relied on field practice, of relations to individuals, to places, to distance which formed an identifiable body. And more importantly, museums and field appeared as complementary rather than opposite concepts.

Chapter 5 is the last one both in the thesis and in the process of writing possibly because it was the one I felt most unprepared for. As I was entering the very last months of the PhD, I finally sat down to figure out what those daunting lists of specimens could offer. I genuinely let myself be surprised (perhaps naively ?) when I realised how €œlocalised€ the arrangement of bodies of objects could be, in sum how peculiar the action of standardisation and serialisation of natural knowledge could become. While nature is usually approached in universal terms, the plasticity of natural knowledge as it was practiced in the museums was absolutely striking me.

In the end, what did I try to do and how did this work out ?

When I started this work, and in fact throughout the enquiry, one resonating question at the back of my head was always to find out what, in actual fact, had conducted financially fragile municipalities, relatively unprepared communities to embrace, maintain and fund collections which seemed to be of interest of merely a handful of local scholars.

I think one of the main findings of this research is :
° How museums were crafted, or tinkered, really, as local scientific centres
° How their role in the local community lay in the materialisation of what I call “natural capital”€. What I mean by that describes the expression/enunciation of the nature of relations between humans and nature as it was weaved together by naturalists (though things and discourses). This capital was constructed as a system of value, hinged on symbolic power, which was used for transactions inside the administrative, social and scientific space of the city.
This research has shown how the enunciation of this human/nature configuration, the natural capital, was also bounded: through discursive practices, travelling, funding, a particular space shall be the object of higher interest: such as the Pyrenees, the Rhone valley, which thus becomes a delineated place.
The centrality of the museum did not lie in the geometric position within this area, but in how the museum was miniatured version of this place.

As the last moment of this presentation, I will now look back at the how I approached the thesis methodologically.
As much as the structure of the thesis now looks finished and clearly delineated, it makes no wonder that some choices were to be operated which eventually gave it the shape it has taken.

The first choice which needed to be made, which has been haunting me ever since was the selection of the cities and museums.
Well, there was an initial table of 60 museums. The criteria for the selection was : was there a collection there was would date back to the French Revolution, as the museum was envisaged as a site where the documents of those collections could be identified in order to trace them.
Of course I stopped after three cities, because this already sounded too much (and it proved to be indeed, a lot, when I considered prosopographical studies which I then had to give up on).
This choice of cities has been extremely fruitful because I (naively) imagined that I retained three similar cities in terms of sizes, and I departed from the idea that all of them had seen a museum open in the course of the revolutionary years or slightly later.
The fact is that at that early stage, I did not discriminate between the cases because I expected a certain level of homogeneity on the functioning of the model and I was unable to elaborate a clear set of criteria. There was no such thing as homogeneity. The strength of the selection of the three cities lies in how much they diverge in shape, in scope, even in becoming, where one would have expected carbon copies of one another.

What was possibly the most constant and strongest impulse of my work was to maintain a spatial approach. I initially wanted to do it the French way : with a lot of maps. I also wanted to revolutionise mapping, invent this once-and-for-all methodology for historical mapping which I considered was missing.
Well, it shall continue to be missing (!), because my cartographic endeavour, although I spent considerable time trying out applications for computer mapping, and more importantly, weeks compiling data and geo-coordinates for remote and/or forgotten localities in the midst of the 19th century Alps, my thesis only contains 3 maps. This is far from the result I had formulated in the beginning. Mapping certainly is a project of its own, I realised.
I also realised, considering how little mapping was used outside of France, that there were perhaps other ways of offering spatialised analysis. One of them was writing. Chapter 4 is, in that regard, an experimental site of tinkering with words and styles in order to pass on the spatial by stimulating other senses than sight.

One of the most patent choices I made, which was not an obvious one, was the choice of language. I certainly like a challenge. Otherwise, why start a PhD. But I also like to spice up a challenge.
Writing my thesis in a foreign language responded to this aspect of my sensibility. The prowess€ was not, however, the objective.
My education and earlier career had been about to stretch legs across two cultures : the francophone and the anglophone one, and that had proved enriching because I also love to be displace when working my way around languages and cultural aspects.
Since I was going to write about something which I feared was all too familiar, I needed an instrument of distanciation for which I thought using English was going to help me reach. I think it worked. And I must say I am reasonably proud to have achieved the bi-linguistic and bi-cultural , in some respect, intellectual product I am presenting today.
Writing the PhD as an EUI PhD candidate certainly made that possible, and this is yet another example of how the situation of intellectual work very practically affects its configurations.

Ultimately, one last aspect of my approach was one I could never have formulated without reading Helene Blais’ comments on how conclusions should be reworked, how they only tacitly, unspokenly concluded.
I was bewildered by this comment.
There is some level of disregard, perhaps at a moment where the meaning of the author (me) has gotten ungraspable (matter of distance)
Perhaps refusal to finish ? Perhaps self-censorship ?
I gave this matter a lot of thought and even if my point is not to hide behind a smoke screen of discourse, I think it actually poses a methodological question – in terms of approach and in terms of approach. About finishing a study.

I left for this doctoral research without a map. I did not really know what I was looking for, I knew how I wanted to do it, using space, precisely as a deconstructing tool.
So I left without a map, and let myself be guided by the knowledge of the archive I encountered. And I believe I came back from my voyage with quite a sizeable collection of ideas and findings.
Closing happens now, but also later, a longer-term process which goes well beyond the thesis.

The step I am taking with this thesis is to bring you a work which helps to open up municipal museums of natural history. My hope, my ambition, is to provide an instrument for a changed regard and changed way to think of museums, and to approach them as conceptual tool. Approaching them as a place, not a place of retreat, of the true values against globalism, but as a plastic and fluid framework to think about the past practices of scientific production.”

Cite this article as: Déborah Dubald, "The story of the making of a thesis: my viva presentation," in History, on the road, 02/12/2019,

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1 Response

  1. Marie says:

    It was a beautiful speech and I am honoured to have been able to attend this ‘beautiful’ moment as you call it.
    A fascinating subject and thrilling conversation for somebody who did not know much (or rather, next to nothing) on the subject.
    You deserve all the praise you received. Your work is a new milestone in the field and sets the bar for more conceptual and empirical research.
    The jury was in awe, and so was I. Bravo! 🙂

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