Genre ReMix


Hall of Biodiversity at the American Museum of Natural History

The Hall of Biodiversity is an interesting example of a modern exhibition remixing the old Victorian-era encyclopedic spectacle. AMNH’s first thematic gallery is not about any particular scientific discipline (ie the ‘-ologies’ ) but is dedicated to the theme of  “world crisis of biodiversity”. The gallery’s outward appearance is certainly derived from a classic Victorian model as described in Carla Yanni’s Nature’s Museums: The Architecture of  Display – or perhaps the earlier model of the WunderKammer. A combination of a visual spectacle that grabs your attention at an emotional level and a modern message-driven exhibition, the gallery also has a richness of content embedded in media stations with video interviews with real working scientists, touchable models, an open-air diorama and a resource center that links you to conservation projects around the world. As I think about the future of the museum I must say that I find this remixing of earlier iconic exhibition models quite compelling and uniquely powerful.


5 responses to “Genre ReMix

  1. This was supposed to be a short response to but it got a little involved… I’m crazy

    I agree that this mixing of the early “wunderkammer” with contemporary
    exhibit techniques (like media stations) at the AMNH’s Hall of Biodiversity is an inspiring blend of old
    and new.

    The curiosity cabinet/wunderkammer/studiolo has been an interest of mine since I read a chapter from James Clifford’s book The Predicament of Culture in an art historical methods course. The chapter, “On Collecting Art and Culture” very much collides with what I saw to be Appelbaum’s chief concern: “are museums places where cultural artifacts go to die?”

    Anyway, the main thoughts I took away from it were questions like: “why do we collect things?” “what things warrant collecting, and how to we select and categorize them?” “why are they displayed?”

    The last question, “why are they displayed?,” has an obvious answer today: To educate. However, this wasn’t necessarily true in say, the 16th century where collector gentleman might lay all his specimen, artifacts, (all from different cultures and animal kingdoms, of course) side by side. It was chiefly used to shock and impress rather than edify.

    There was an exhibit at MOMA last year titled
    Wunderkammer: A
    Century of Curiosities. It approximated a wunderkammer in the sense
    that all the pieces selected for the exhibit were drawings, prints,
    etc of “oddities”: mythological cities, strange animals; the types of
    objects that would have been displayed in one.

    I think that the Hall of Biodiversity is a more successful
    interpretation of the wunderkammer in that it takes the old technique
    of displaying specimen – but updates its reputation as a shocking, dusty,
    private collection to one that is geared to educate its spectators.

    The MOMA took the TYPES of thing
    displayed in a wunderkammer artists had drew on paper, and took what
    they could find out of their collection, which made for a fun exhibit,
    but not necessarily an innovative one.

    So, some interesting art projects about the wunderkammer to wrap up my thoughts…
    I went to see a lecture that was held in conjunction with this MOMA exhibition, and the lecturer brought up some very interesting artist projects that dealt with these ideas of museums, provenance, display, and collecting. I thought it’d be fun to look up some obscure URLs and share them with you!

    – Barton Bene’s collections of things from celebrities (tissues, throat lozenges, panties)

    – Barbara Bloom’s exhibit titled “The Reign of Narcissism” in which she built a museum dedicated to herself

    -Sophie Calle’s piece Last Seen, which concerns 13 works of art stolen from a museum in Boston. The museum (the Isabella Stewart Gardner) was once a private collection and the original display of the artwork was ordered to remain in tact after it became a public institution. Obviously, this means the museum is filled with 13 of these awkward “holes.” Calle pairs photographs of these empty spaces with text from interviews with museum staff in which they talk about the missing pieces.

    – Fred Wilson’s Baltimore Historical Society project “Mining the Museum” in which he was invited to sift through the museum’s artifacts. Wilson pairs artifacts in unorthodox ways to deliver messages effectively. Similar to the way many artists create messages – but it this case he uses artifacts in a public institution.

    -and Mark Dion’s work in general – MOMA actually commissioned him to do an excavation. His finding from this dig are displayed in a cabinet

    -other related awesome things: The Jurassic Museum of Technology in LA, the City Reliquary in Williamsburg

  2. Great connections! We will in fact be looking at work and talking about artists Mark Dion, Sophie Calle, Fred Wilson, Museum of Jurassic Technology and others. These artists all use the Museum (with a capital M) as a discursive site of exploration and their work generally plays on the function of the curator, subverting insitutional authority and the role of the viewer as participant in the construction of meaning.

  3. The Hall of Biodiversity proved to be a nice segway into the chilling (physically and proverbially) whale room.

    While midly clustered in some areas, the great variance in lighting and display catered well to the purpose of the room itself.

    I loved the fossils in the glass cases in the ground and the digital displays complimenting the more traditional wall mounted forms.

    There is much to see in this wing of the musuem, but it is presented in a “user friendly” way, one that allows the viewer to enhance their knowledge in ways that pertain uniquely to their interests. There is nothing more tedious than having to weed through information to find something of concern, and this wing of the museum particularly lends itself to exploration on one’s own time.

  4. When entering into the space it is impressive how much of the design is linked with the Victorian-era Cabinet of Curiosities. There is a richness of content that makes one overwhelmed by the amount being presented. At the same time the visual aesthetic that forces the viewer to be captivated. I think that one of the most powerful ways to communicate information is through that “remixing of iconic exhibitions”. However, I have been in the Hall of Biodiversity many times and never once knew that it was themed of the “world crisis of biodiversity.” Possibly due to the overwhelming visual display, I never felt compelled to read any of the information presented.

  5. On the note of not feeling compelled to read any of the information presented… I feel that this is an aspect of MOST museum visitor’s experience. Labels, while informative for those that use them, seem to be bypassed by the vast majority of museum goers. This only enforces the notion that the museum experience is just that, experiential. I personally fell that the information presented on the often neglected labels in incredibly importatnt to the experience. This is an opportunity for new ways of presenting this information in a more integrated manner.

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