Category Archives: natural history

The Modern Museum

The modern public museum was invented to meet the needs of an emergent democratized society. Without the rule of law overseen by a dominating sovereign power, newly minted governmental powers needed a way to control the masses. Michel Foucault calls this the “disciplinary society” where penitentiaries, schools, libraries, department stores and museums were invented as “instruments of the state” to control and shape the behavior of the public. These were the new public spaces and were governed by ideas of transparency and surveillance. The modern museum was considered crucial to the notion of progress of the individual and served as a therapeutic space where he could learn to aspire to higher ideals.

Modern Stage.xlsx

Exhibitions in modern museums were performative environments in which newly forms of conduct and behavior could be scripted and enforced. The space of the modern museum was highly ordered, rational, collections and displays were serial in nature, expressing an encyclopeadic completeness. The rare and unique was replaced with the serial where an implied system of relationships between things became more important than the individual objects themselves. They were described as “educative spectacles”. As Edward Grey, a mid-19th Century curator of the British Museum, put it “the subject should be able to visually comprehend the greatest amount of information in a moderate space, that could be obtained in a single glance”. In other words, you did not need to read in the museum. You learned by looking. William Henry Flower late 19th Century director of the London Natural History Museum outlined the method  by which modern curator creates an exhibition “…Hire a curator, define the objective of the museum, determine a subject, divide the subject, plan a space, create a hierarchy of labels, develop a concise language, select illustrative specimens,… that then fall into appropriate places.” Note how much of this process is about determining the message and ordering space. The emphasis is not on the uniqueness of the object but on its ability to serve a script. These museums were most often organized around departments that reflected the professionalized disciplines and sub-disciplines of social history, art history and the natural sciences. These disciplines and the rigorous scholarship that defined them gave rise to the curator – or subject matter expert – who presided over the functions of collecting, preserving, studying and interpreting (writing the script) and exhibiting.

Tim Ventimiglia

Victorian Models in the Modern Museums

Nature’s Museums Victorian Science and the Architecture of Display, by Carla Yanni, states that “One of the most disturbing aspects of classification in Victorian museums is that the natural history museums…all contained objects made by non-western people.” (p. 15) Yet, when looking towards the natural history museums in the world today, the same occurrence happens. Many of these collections were founded during the Victorian era and still have strong linked back to that identity. The question to consider, is how do “contemporary” natural history museums understand their collections of non-western people? Even further, how will natural history museums in the future address these issues to the wider and more diverse audiences that attend museums? As we move towards the future in museums, an important component to consider how are we displaying the objects inside and what do those display choices reflect about our own society. Historian Mario Baglioli expressed that “representation of racial differences and gender roles embedded in many natural history exhibits, are some science museums’ attempt to shape national identities through the celebration of a nation’s scientific and technological “monuments” and heroes.” (p. 15) These non-western objects and collections are a key part to many museums and should not for-sake them. The question for the future is how will we deal with these Victorian models in a modern environment?

mirandaelston

Sentient City

Amphibious Architecture

"Amphibious Architecture" at Toward a Sentient City

I was excited to see  great projects at the Toward the Sentient City exhibition at Urban Center last night. The projects represented visionary thoughts about situated technologies and networks in urban space  – digital workspaces in urban parks, satellite sending tags on discarded objects that track downstream waste systems in real-time, using roots of plants as carbon cycle circuit breakers, interactive street furniture that enforces good behavior, and my favorite… aquatic beacons that allow you to talk to fish in the bottom of the city’s waterspace. The Amphibious Architecture team immersed several SMS addressable electronic sensors in the bottom of the East River and The Bronx River. You can text them and engage in a dialog. Here is a short transcript:

me “Hey East River”, them “Underwater, its now loud”, me ” Hey Herring”, them “Hi there there are 24 of us down here . Dissolved oxygen is higher than last week”, me ” RiverRiver”, them “Right now the East River is louder than the Bronx River. This hour 18 fish swam by in East, and 11 in Bronx. Dissolved Oxygen is higher in Bronx”

It reminded me  of the Fish Finder radar that my grandfather and I discreetly deployed on many of our fishing expeditions. But this the added sense of having a dialog with your prey. Now anytime I am feeling a bit too high and dry in my office (which overlooks the East River) I can find out what’s going on down there along its murky bottom. Just text message “EastRiver” to 41411.

Genre ReMix

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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.

Museum Futures

What is museum of the future? What shape will museums take in 10 years, in 20 years, in 40 years? If you are in graduate school right now then this represents the time span of your active professional career when you will likely lay the groundwork for the next generation of museums. In 2050 what will The Cooper-Hewitt look like? The American Museum of Natural History? The Museum of the City of New York? How can the museum of the future take into account the ever-increasing speed of social, geographic and technological transformation that we are witnessing?  How can the range of design professionals specializing in museums help with the necessary transformations that these institutions must undergo. What new strategies and techniques will they employ?