Above ––
Representatives of collections commonly found in the natural history museum. Not to scale. Models and photograph by Elise Hunchuck (2015).

Above ––
Visitors walk among frames, scrims, collections and become part of the diorama of the Anthropocene. Collage by Elise Hunchuck (2015).

Enter the Diorama:
The Museum is an Archipelago

There was no seeing everything at once. No certainty.
—Ursula K. Le Guin [1]

The following text was read and presented alongside a final review in December 2015 at the Daniels Faculty:

As the flora, fauna, minerals and atmosphere of this world are forced to adapt to changes within themselves and in relation to each other with increasing speed in the Anthropocene, how might we design the natural history museum for and among the realities of our world?

From its inception, the natural history museum has attempted to resolve the problem of how to represent the many worlds within our world. Is it possible that our relation to others–human and otherwise–might be challenged, and possibly, reconfigured in the space of the natural history museum?

A relatively open institution, the natural history museum has attempted to, through its various iterations–including but not limited to leveraging a combination of display, educational program and the provision for spaces of contemplation and engagement–respond to and determine the museum visitor’s sense of place in the world and their respective society. As an institution, it is also true that the museum is deeply embedded and entangled within the world it attempts to portray. Meaning and knowledge production does not only occur within the highly-produced world of displays, vitrines, and the natural history diorama, but also in the museum’s role as the point of departure and return of the collectors, travelers, and scientists of the world; the natural history museum was and continues to be a site of administrative and scientific exchanges and expertise.

These exchanges of the natural history museum typically elapse between the collection of a thing from the world and its eventual establishment within an existing collection, either as specimen, or, as a coveted type specimen (the discovery of a previously unknown thing-in-the-world). This is the simplest of exchanges and knowledge production that might occur. On the other end of the spectrum, the collecting of a thing might result in a kind of upheaval–both physical and mental–with the collection and acquisition of a singular specimen triggering entire sets of new questions, radically incommensurate with previously agreed upon ideas about the existing order of the natural world, resulting in wholesale revisions of classification systems.

Until recently, one might argue, these laborious and prolonged exchanges and conflicts resulting in the reordering of knowledge for the classifi cations of flora, fauna, and minerals were primarily a conceptual concern to be debated and understood within the sciences. However, the tendency to relegate these concerns and exchanges to forums outside of the public realm is to fail to publicly understand or acknowledge the differences in modes of collection, exchange, the divisions of labour, the modes of representation and education deployed within different institutions owing to their geographic or cultural contexts. That is to say that knowledge and meaning production in the natural history museum does not simply occur on its own; each are the result of exchanges and promotions by particular persons for particular reasons.

This research and design proposal responds–and subverts–the tidy narratives presented by the natural history museum by engaging with and responding to the typical museum-goer’s binomial optical human condition of knowledge production based on perception.

Colour, lighting and optical illusions are leveraged as a way of proposing a museum for and within the Anthropocene. As a means by which to fully engage with the intensive negotiations required of designers in response to–and within–the Anthropocene, it takes up the refusal of Édouard Glissant: the museum is an archipelago. Central to his defiance is the possibility of calling attention to the “means of global exchange which do not homogenize culture but produce a difference from which new things can emerge.”[1] The archipelic nature of his proposal works against the smoothing abstraction of the museum and natural science’s reified systems of classifi cation, and, we might argue, like philosopher Bruno Latour’s much later proposal for spaces of hybridity, both asks and suggests how the museum might re-present the natural, the social and the cognitive.

In the context of the natural history museum, then, rather than waiting for the production and consensus of new meanings through those traditional means of exchanges within the tidy taxonomic orderings based on number, forms, disposition of parts and geographical provenance, the archipelagic museum takes it form and meaning by way of producing spaces of hybridity. In the hybrid-museum-space, modular frames of scrim are deployed throughout, allowing for layering and gaps in each viewer’s line of sight as they move through the space of the museum.

The variations in angle, thickness and number of scrims create zones of variegated intensity and it is these, the boundaries between classification systems–those methods by which knowledge is produced–that are each shown for their sometimes delicate, sometimes tenuous, but always constructed nature. This network of accumulation and exchange of knowledge as one walks through the museum is not unlike the networks of museums themselves as centres of commercial exchange, colonial enterprise and political agency, and it may provide us now, in the Anthropocene, a method and space by which to achieve an intensive and responsive negotiation with the world.

NotesThis design and research proposal was completed for the final review of Design Studio III (2015), part of the Master of Landscape Architeture program, with the guidance of James MacGillivray. More images to come. 

1. Édouard Glissant in dOCUMENTA (13): 100 Notizen - 100 Gedanken. Kassel: Hatje Cantz.