According to Michel Foucault, the project of the nineteenth century bourgeois museum organized more than collections. It also attempted, through the combination of display, contemplation, and education, to determine museum visitorsʼ sense of place in society. From this angle, institutional collections—especially for the natural history museum—perform a dual function. They are the basis from which academic scholarship is generated while at the same time they are the mechanism through which the correct relationship between nature and scientific knowledge is suggested to the public. The aim of this course is to study the shifting concerns of contemporary collections in the context of the twenty-first century.
One of the most striking reorganizations of knowledge systems signaled by the so-called Anthropocene is a radical destabilization of the modern Western distinction between nature and culture. It seems all but impossible today to study nature independently from human impact. This shift requires multiple fields of inquiry to reevaluate the stories they tell regarding our place, as humans, in the world. In the seminar, we will develop the question of the postnatural and postcolonial collection in relation to the possible meanings of collecting, collections, and curatorial practice.
We begin, therefore, from the following questions. What does the Anthropocene thesis imply for museums and the collections they contain? How do environmental and geopolitical concerns transform traditional exhibitionary practice? And, what is the potential of curatorial-editorial agency for alternative forms of collecting and presenting in the Anthropocene? The goal is to examine such exhibition and publication projects that have confronted the entangled legacies of institutional collections in order to illuminate and compare how exhibitions communicate divergent concerns through a variety of media presented in spatial constellations.
The seminar will be composed of four two and a half hour sessions, each of which will consist of readings and discussions about thematic and visual strategies. An introductory contextualization to the history of exhibitions is provided through excerpted readings of seminal texts. Students will be expected to write 400 words on some aspect of the week’s topic in advance. These pieces will be posted to the Google Classroom page for everyone to read and comment on, providing some preliminary threads for the group discussion. The final assessment will consist of a 1500–2000 word essay on a topic agreed upon with the instructor in advance.