Tag Archive for: Natural History

Museum Godeffroy, Hamburg: The South Sea in the North Sea

MfN Kleinschmidt Bird

Senior Research Fellow, Understanding Written Artefacts, University of Hamburg  (2019-2020)

 

The ‘Museum Godeffroy’ of Hamburg was both short-lived (1861-1885) as a public venue and incredibly long-lived in terms of its impact. Its extensive trade with other significant collections worldwide — collections which still retain large numbers of Godeffroy natural history specimens — include the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin and London’s Natural History Museum. Through its highly effective and standardised duplicate sales catalogues and logistical streamlining, it distributed and sold natural historical and ethnographic materials across the globe, including sales made back to the very regions from which it collected in Australia-Pacific among others. Skilfully interwoven with the vast Godeffroy & Sohn trading empire in what was then known in Europe as the South Sea, the Museum was ‘scientized’ through an equally well-distributed network of learned natural historians willing to assist in species determinations in exchange for rebates on purchases, as well as through the creation of a lavish publishing programme.

 

 

For most of the academic year 2019-2020 I have been effecting research on the Museum Godeffroy as a Petra Kappert Visiting Research Fellow with the University of Hamburg’s Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures. The Centre is home to one of the most prestigious research grants awarded by the German State — an Excellence Cluster – the funding for which has supported my Fellowship. Understanding Written Artefacts investigates the material objects of manuscript cultures, globally and in a wide range of time periods.

 

One of the five major areas of inquiry for Understanding Written Artefacts is the node on ‘Archiving Artefacts’ — examining the physical and spatial contexts for the structuring of written information into conceptual and retrievable formations. Of course, these archival practices have a direct bearing on the production of knowledge, be it in property law or in religious observance, and naturally ‘Archiving Artefacts’ also looks at ‘the relationship of collections of written artefacts with other objects, e.g. in museums’. The spokesperson for this area of inquiry on the larger Excellence Cluster is Markus Friedrich, the author of the magisterial The Birth of the Archive: A History of Knowledge.

 

archival folder museum godeffroy files mfn

 

I first met Markus when we were both Visiting Scholars at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in 2012, in the framework of the ‘Sciences of the Archive’ project led by Lorraine Daston. Both Markus and I were effecting research on the materiality of collections inside a working group that generally had much more esoteric and malleable bodies of knowledge in their sights, such as astronomical or meteorological data. At that time, I was beginning to trace some of the epistemological links between the natural history collection management practices of Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753) and 21st Century practices in high-throughput genomic databases like BOLD (Barcode of Life). Markus was working on his manuscript for The Birth of The Archive. It was a pleasure to share notes on our messy, organic subjects and the organised disorganisation of collecting and categorisation in early modern Europe.

 

When I saw that Markus had included a study of a natural history collection in his area of the ‘Understanding Written Artefacts’ Cluster, I got in touch. ‘Label, object and collection — principles, practices and reflections of the genesis of knowledge’ was initiated by the Director of the University of Hamburg’s natural history museum (CeNak) Professor Matthias Glaubrecht. He saw that the labelling of natural history collections constitutes a form of manuscript culture that clearly plays a crucial part in knowledge creation in the natural sciences. Matthias’s interest in, and knowledge of, the Museum Godeffroy is of long date, stretching back to his dissertation years based at the University of Hamburg in the Museum of which he is now the Director — a Museum which holds a substantial proportion of what was once the Museum Godeffroy. Between his disputation in 1994 and his appointment as Director of CeNak in 2014, he held a range of other posts, including twelve years at the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin – where there are also considerable Godeffroy-related materials.

 

Museum Godeffroy Label Octopus

 

The three of us met in June 2019 and agreed to propose a Fellowship to enable me to bring my experience of research on histories of knowledge production in museum and collection practices to bear on the project outline that Matthias had created. Through my extensive work on the early modern manuscript catalogues of Sir Hans Sloane, whose collections of natural historical and economic botany specimens and research documents formed the basis of the British Museum / Natural History Museum, I am very familiar with the complex and evolving indexical and epistemological relations between specimens, labels and catalogues. These information architectures are key paper tools with both significant materiality and critical agency in the development of morphology and taxonomy, yet we still lack a full understanding of their emergence, history and imbrication with specimens in knowledge- and method-producing practices over time.

 

It has been wonderful to be part of the international research arena that has been created at the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures under its Director, Professor Michael Friedrich, the eminent sinologist. The range and scope of research at the Centre is unparalleled, and has given me a chance to return to my training in history of the book, as well as to tie this in with my work in history of collections and of natural history. As with many of my projects, this one has also involved moving back and forth between museum and university contexts, and I have also been welcomed and supported through collaborations with highly knowledgable curators and collections managers at the CeNak.

 

With their help, I have been able to effect primary research at the CeNak on Godeffroy-related historical collections and labelling practices, and we have also worked with the UWA ‘Object Profiling Team’ to analyse inks and paper compositions of Museum Godeffroy labels from the later 19th Century. We will be co-authoring an article about our findings in the coming months. I’ve also visited archives where outgoing correspondence from the Museum Godeffroy – mainly from its then ‘Custos,’ Johannes Dietrich Eduard Schmeltz (1839 – 1909) — shines a clear light on the reciprocity between collections and duplicate sales of the materials that the Godeffroy empire was able to commission from envoys and scouts across the Pacific. This subject of duplicates is the focus of a working group at the Department of the Humanities of Nature at the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin, and I will be participating with my findings. I’ve also been able to delve into business history, which is a new field for me, and have had some excellent guidance from the Stiftung Hanseatisches Wirtschaftsarchiv in Hamburg.

 

object profiling team UWA Hamburg

 

The Fellowship period has enabled me to refine the project scope and research questions and give clearer definition to the methods and aims of the project. It is clear to me that the scale and reach of a coherent project concerning the Museum Godeffroy and its afterlives must match the scale and scope of the original 19th Century project in a number of significant ways. Both natural history and ethnographic materials were collected and traded: the link between these two disciplines, and between science and commerce, are sharply delineated in the case of Godeffroy. A rigorous research project concerning the Museum Godeffroy would also look closely at the intertwined nature of colonial practice and logistics, as well as the practices in museology and biology that these have engendered. It must involve museums from all across Europe which purchased significant specimens from Godeffroy. Ultimately, any project hoping to address the Museum Godeffroy as a phenomenon should include researchers from the Pacific nations, great and small, where all this teeming life was collected, and which reflects an ecosystem that has now been profoundly altered.

 

Perhaps the forensic work of ‘understanding written artefacts’ can hope to understand not just the epistemes, but also the deeper existential and even ethical connections between trade practices and science practice, and in so doing also perform a kind of colonial provenance research for the natural world of the Pacific, in which historical, environmental and climate justice could all hope to be served.

 

museum godeffroy doubletten catalogue detail

 

 

Further Links: Centre for the Study of Manuscript CulturesCentrum für Naturkunde HamburgHumanities of Nature – Museum für NaturkundeStiftung Hanseatisches Wirtschaftsarchiv

 

[Image References: Egg of the Ardea sacra, collected for Museum Godeffroy on Lunado Levu 15 September 1875, Museum für Naturkunde Berlin; Bird specimen (Pachycephala torquata) collected by Kleinschmidt on Tavinui December 1875, Museum für Naturkunde Berlin; bound correspondence files, Historische Arbeitsstelle, Museum für Naturkunde Berlin; Museum Godeffroy label for an Octopus specimen, CeNak Hamburg; Object Profiling Team of the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures setting up a multi-spectral imaging session with Museum Godeffroy specimen labels]

 

Politics of Natural History

cinchona bark and peruvian researcher roque rodriguez

Natural historical materials, beyond the more obvious case of physical anthropology, have remained until quite recently largely outside of the important discussion and debate around heritage — both tangible and intangible — in relation to human rights and cultural goods across an asymmetric globe.

 

The deep schism in museological practice and function between museums of material culture — be they decorative arts, ethnography, archaeology, or fine art museums — and the museum of natural history may have briefly postponed the moment when these issues become critically important to examine, but such arbitrary disciplinary differences are increasingly intellectually untenable in the face of the moral imperative of decolonisation.

This exclusion of natural historical materials from this debate to date has in part been due to the very strong ring-fencing and contextualisation of these kinds of materials as existing in a circumscribed ‘science’ arena that is incorrectly deemed to be entirely outside a cultural or heritage framework.  Collections of zoological materials and herbaria in particular have been understood through the twentieth century to have significance in the Global North mainly for the life sciences such as biology, zoology, molecular research and genetics, phytology, chemistry and so on.  And in this same period, science practice itself was well scaffolded as being concerned uniquely with absolute, repeatable, timeless and discoverable matters of fact that were in no way open to the productive ambiguity of the cultural ‘objet’.

This broad-brush outline fits if we look at 20th century natural history from the point of view of most biologists.  But it does not tell the whole story if we look at natural history from the point of view of historians and philosophers of science and of knowledge practices in the 21st century, and if we look at natural history from the point of view of historians of collections and of globalisation. It is certainly not the whole story for indigenous peoples whose deep-time worldviews include, to take but one example, direct connections between ancestors and organic materials such as dried plants — organic materials with spiritual and cultural attributes, as well as (or in spite of) its western scientific attributes.

I have been investigating the relationship between natural history, colonisation, and museum practice for many years in different contexts — beginning with the large-scale site-specific project The Wilds and The Deep, which I created with Lyne Lapointe in 1990, through to my work at London’s Natural History Museum two decades later when I was part of the team setting up the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research there.  But recently there has been an acceleration of research in this nexus, and I have shared my expertise with colleagues in  Göttingen, Berlin, Copenhagen and London over the past year alone.

In Berlin, I spoke at the ‘Politics of Natural History’ conference organised by the Museum für Naturkunde and the Technische Universität Berlin in September of 2018.  Alongside the historian of natural history Dominik Hünniger, we presented preliminary findings from a workshop that we had led during my research fellowship at the University of Göttingen earlier that year.  Our joint presentation, Putting Metadata to Work: Modelling Information on Historical Collections of Natural History in Social Justice Contexts, outlined some of the difficulties to be encountered in aligning bodies of knowledge from different time periods, knowledge regimes, and cultural contexts, and in attempting to configure those bodies of knowledge in more equitable relations.

A sustained and ongoing investigation into the histories, methods and influences of globalised economic botany is being led at Kew Gardens by Felix Driver, Caroline Cornish and Mark Nesbitt.  This May 2019, their international conference ‘Collections in Circulation’ will see a highly interdisciplinary group of museum professionals and other researchers delve into what happens to biocultural collections over their long lifespans and wide circulations.  I will also be speaking at this event, summing up and highlighting what the papers might collectively be pointing towards.

 

Cinchona Distribution in GBIG

[Image References:  Herbarium specimen of Theobroma cacao, as collected by Sir Hans Sloane in Jamaica in 1687 (NHM London); bark of the Cinchona tree held by Roque Rodriguez; Screenshot of the distribution of herbarium specimens of Cinchona ledgeriana]

Research Fellow, University of Göttingen (2018)

Sammlungen-der-Universitaet-erhalten-Zentrale-Kustodie

Deepening and renewing the connections between university research and collections, the University of Göttingen has created a ‘Zentrale Kustodie’  as a development centre for its extraordinarily rich collections, amassed over 250 years. It has a dedicated and highly trained staff under the leadership of Dr Marie Luisa Allemeyer, and work has already begun on the Forum Wissen — a future venue for collections research, exhibition and communication that will have an extensive public-facing programme. Due to open in a few short years in what was once the University’s Natural History Museum, Forum Wissen will significantly improve the landscape for interdisciplinary teaching and learning with, through and about collections. Partnering these developments, the University’s Institute for Advanced Study, the Litchtenberg Kolleg, extends invitations and infrastructures to visiting researchers whose knowledge spans collections practice and histories, and the histories of the disciplines.

 

 

This year I have been a Visiting Scholar at the Lichtenberg Kolleg, The University of Göttingen Institute for Advanced Study. This is a joint Fellowship with support from, and collaboration with, the University’s Zentrale Kustodie for university collections and the Office of the Chair in the Materiality of Knowledge. Working with all three entities on a range of projects, it has been a stimulating and exciting time.

 

It was not my first visit to Göttingen: in February of 2016 I was invited by Marie Luisa Allemeyer, Director of the Zentrale Kustodie, to speak on the ‘Wissensort Museum’ Programme of lectures known as the Ringvorlesung. Following the lecture I was able to spend several days at the University as a guest of the Zentrale Kustodie, visiting and viewing the extensive departmental collections and discussing the research and teaching plans that the Kustodie has been developing for one of the most innovative and inspiring initiatives taking place in university museum contexts today. When I received the invitation to return to the University of Göttingen that was extended by Dominik Hünniger, the Managing Director of the Lichtenberg Kolleg, I was delighted.

 

The Lichtenberg Kolleg has a research working group dedicated to Enlightenment Studies: ‘Globalising the Enlightenment: Knowledge, Culture, Travel, Exchange and Collections.’ It is a wide-ranging and rigorous remit, ensuring ‘the interdisciplinary study of the Göttingen and European Enlightenment(s) within its wider Atlantic and Global Contexts. Göttingen is not only associated with the Enlightenment’s German manifestations, but also with the Enlightenment of other European and Atlantic regions and countries.’ In this framework I have been having a closer look at the European networks of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), furthering my work on the origins and meanings of Sloane’s early modern collections that are the foundation collections of the British Museum, British Library and Natural History Museum.

 

The Fellowship has also enabled me to work with Dominik, who is also an historian of science with an interest in natural history collections and entomology in particular. While working at the Natural History Museum (London) to help set up a Centre for Arts and Humanities Research there from 2009-2011, I had recommended that the Museum and its collections could be a significant focus for understanding the co-production of scientific and medical knowledge in the historical context of early modern colonisation and global trade. In the blueprint for CAHR’s Strategic Research Programme that I authored in 2011, I wrote:

‘Increasingly in history of science circles, the co-production of scientific knowledge and method in the experience of ‘first contacts’ is becoming an area of sustained research. Professor James Delbourgo, Professor Londa Scheibinger, Professor Neil Safier, and Dr Kathleen Murphy are looking at North and South American contexts, and others are approaching the Indian Subcontinent and Australasia. New models of international agreement for the stewardship of global ecosystems are emerging. At the Nagoya 2010 meeting of the Convention on Biodiversity, a number of binding international agreements were made, not least the agreement on Access and Benefit Sharing of genetic resources in the biosphere. Though the protocol is not retroactively binding and therefore does not cover collections such as the NHM, it is related structurally and morally to the Traditional Knowledge (TK) that is bound up in the collections: the Museum needs humanities advice about how best to approach these issues with a long-term view.’

 

Dominik and I discussed these issues and the increasing body of humanities research that is dovetailing together the histories of colonisation and empire, environmental history, histories of collections, and histories of science and knowledge production. We then designed an exploratory workshop for Göttingen researchers which could begin to chart this research territory in relation to present-day policy contexts. These current policy contexts go beyond the Nagoya Protocol to include, for example, the Intergovernmental Committee on Traditional Knowledge that is being managed through the World Intellectual Property Organisation. What might early modern museum catalogues contain in terms of critical information about the contributions of the colonised and the enslaved to the long-term development of biological and medical knowledge? Are these archival records forms of ‘intellectual property’ that could have value in social justice contexts as well as in epistemological contexts?

 

We took these thoughts and the contributions of our working group to the recent conference ‘Politics of Natural History‘ organised by the Museums für Naturkunde in Berlin. The subtitle of the conference was ‘How to Decolonise the Natural History Museum?’ and this remains an open question: we hope that our contribution will have gone some way towards the kinds of methods that will have to be developed in order to make this a reality. In terms of my own histories, I can see this question recurring again and again — both with The Wilds and The Deep (1990) and in my work with CAHR (2009-2011).

 

 

UGottingen Zentrale Kustordie Research

 

Working in Göttingen also gave me the opportunity to reconnect with Margarete Vöhringer, who has been appointed as Professor in the University’s Chair for the Materiality of Knowledge — a position unique to my knowledge in Europe. Her Professorship will see her working across disciplines in her areas of expertise between the history of art and the history of science, working closely with the Zentrale Kustodie and the University’s collections to train students at all levels in methods of material culture of the history of knowledge. With Margarete I have been sharing knowledge about training in collections-based research and looking at the design of pedagogical underpinnings for the group of doctoral researchers who will be taking up Volkswagen-Stiftung funded scholarships this academic year to study the history of exhibitions.

 

It is not the first time that Margarete and I have worked on histories of exhibitions in tandem. I first met Margarete in 2008 when we were both researchers at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and then in 2010 she co-convened a significant conference entitled ‘Wissenschaft im Museum / Austellung im Laborat the Universität Tübingen with Anke Te Heesen (now Professor of the History of Science at the Humboldt University, Berlin). The premise was to explore the porosity between museum practice and science practice – across the whole range of sites of knowledge from labs and teaching contexts to exhibitions and professional self-fashioning. As one of the speakers, I presented an overview of the development of Split + Splice (2009) alongside co-curator Susanne Bauer. The proceedings have been published by Kadmos, appearing in 2014 under the same title as the conference.

 

This conference was also my first introduction to Christian Vogel, who at the time presented early draft sections of what was then his doctoral project, concerning the design of lab and clinic based X-Ray displays in Germany in the 1910s. Happily, Christian is now the Research Manager at the Zentrale Kustodie at the University of Göttingen, and he worked closely with Margarete to develop the framework for the history of exhibitions doctoral projects that Margarete is leading. It was wonderful to be invited to bring my own expertise into this context, working with colleagues I respect and admire.

 

Forum Wissen UGottingen Math Models

 

I was also invited to contribute to some of the development workshops for the design of research teaching and training with the University’s collections that will be taking place in the new Forum Wissen building currently under construction. The pedagogical design process includes plans for both built infrastructures and the processes and practices that will be required to activate the collections in cross-disciplinary ways. Among the most exciting things about Forum Wissen is that it will deeply embed collections from across the university departments in teaching and research in a single site, circulating the material culture of one discipline and department into the methodological orbit of another.

 

Spearheading the development of the Forum Wissen is the Director of the Zentrale Kustodie, Marie Luisa Allemeyer. I first met both Dominik Hünniger and Marie Luisa Allemeyer in 2015 at a meeting of international University museum directors and research directors convened by The Hunterian Museum of the University of Glasgow. It was one of a cluster of meetings held that year to begin articulating the research practices that are the tacit knowledge of museum practice, and to begin to articulate them as ‘Museum as Method’ to borrow Nick Thomas’s phrase. We were also all three present a year later at the Museum as Method conference held at CRASSH, University of Cambridge. In the run-up to that conference, I laid out some of the territory that needs to be addressed on the blogsite of the ERC-funded Pacific Presences project.

 

Marie Luisa’s work in creating the team at the Zentrale Kustodie and in leading the consensus and collaboration process that is supporting both departmental collections management and the creation of the Forum Wissen is exemplary and inspiring. Supported directly by the University’s President and by an international advisory team, these interlocking projects are among the most exciting developments in University museum practice, teaching and research to be found in Europe today in my opinion. Germany is ahead of the game in joining up these dots: for the past six years, the Coordination Centre for Scientific University Collections in Germany under the sustained leadership of Dr Cornelia Weber and the guidance of Professor Dr Jochen Brüning, has consistently and persuasively made the case for the huge value of university collections to both research and teaching. With the Forum Wissen and the team at the Zentrale Kustodie, this value will finally be manifest.

 

 

Further Links: Forum Wissen Brochure;  Zentrale Kustodie;  Lichtenberg Kolleg;

 

Senior Research Associate, Assembling Alternative Futures for Heritage

Svalbard_Global_Seed_Bank_Matthias_Heyde

Senior Research Associate, Assembling Alternative Futures for Heritage (2015-2016)

AAFH — or ‘Heritage Futures’ — is a flagship four-year research project funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council in the ‘Care for the Future’ strategic programme. Four interconnected themes, each led by a separate researcher, will ‘explore the potential for innovation and creative exchange across a broad range of heritage and related fields, in partnership with a number of academic and non-academic institutions and interest groups.’

 

I received a call from Sharon MacDonald in February of 2014, telling me about an exciting large-scale project that she had been developing with other colleagues. The project would explore and recalibrate the collecting and preserving of cultural and natural heritage in all its complex manifestations — material, digital, intangible — in the framework of 21st century social, technological and economic contexts, as well as the environmental shifts of the anthropocene.  They were looking for a colleague to join the group as part of the funding bid package, a colleague who had the skills to address and effect inter-institutional and interdisciplinary knowledge exchange, and to guide in the formulation of exhibitionary experiments.  With my experience of cross-polinating between museum and academia, and my extensive involvement with collecting institutions across the range from natural historical to biological and anatomical, including historical material culture and archival collections, Sharon felt I would be a good fit.

Sharon and I have known each other and each others’ work for many years, crossing paths notably at the Science Museum in the late 1990s, when I was creating Atomism & Animism, and she was researching and writing Behind the Scenes at the Science Museum. But this was an opportunity to actually work together for the first time, and I was delighted to accept. As a named researcher on the AHRC Grant Application, my areas of activity are outlined in the Case for Support as ‘Senior Research Assistant (knowledge exchange and cross-disciplinary working)’; facilitating ‘cross-WP KEPWs’, ‘interdisciplinary knowledge exchange, dissemination and impact’, ‘pop-up kiosk exhibitions and overall programme-level exhibition’.

Shortly after the grant was awarded, the full team held a working meeting to get to know each other, our areas of interest, and to explore the overarching links between each others’ research questions. The meeting was held in October 2014 at Linnaeus University in Kalmar, kindly hosted by one of the Co-Investigators, Cornelius Holtorf, who is Professor of Archaeology at Linnaeus University and Director of the Graduate School in Contract Archaeology.

AAFH_Team_Kalmar_2014

 

The project got going in earnest in April 2015, and at our May planning meeting that year I contributed three overview presentations — one concerning exhibition practice and experiments, another concerning virtual research environments for the Team, and a third concerning planning and record-keeping for impact ‘narratives.’  During our workshops, my contributions and critiques concerning controlled vocabularies and metadata, current museum practice, and history-of-science approaches to understanding the move from material to molecular in biological collections were valued.

Over the following year, I produced several proposals for the integration of innovative exhibitionary practices into the field work, research programme, and knowledge exchange events of AAFH, as well as concepts and budgets for flexible pop-up displays that could work as well in public fora as they would in academic contexts. I outlined a number of these proposals in a lecture entitled ‘Ideas on the Move’, at the invitation of the Bikuben Foundation, Denmark, on the occasion of their symposium Considering Exhibitions (National Museum of Denmark, 23 August 2015).

I built a virtual research environment for the Team using Google Drive and tools, so that it was up and running rapidly — and then I restructured and migrated our data into Evernote so that the advantages of Evernote’s tagging and workchat would better support this highly distributed Team. My contributions to the VRE included a list of visual artists whose work and practices would be of value and interest to the Team members — in this way, I introduced them to the work of artists such as Yann Mingard, Bill Burns, Maria Thereza Alvez, Lisa Autogena, and the Boyle Family.  I was also able to direct the Team to best practice guidelines in commissioning and working with artists. In the end, the project has mainly focused on filmmaking, with lead Creative Fellow Antony Lyons not only training all five research associates in filmmaking, but also bringing his own subsequent Arts Council Grant to the table.

I also built a quick-and-dirty website to rapidy profile the project online while I drew up a requirements document and spec-sheet for the real thing, researching best-fit designers. The Team went with the creative agency that I had identified — The District (Cambridge) — who have done a great job as you can see on the AAFH website.

As the Heritage Futures project developed, individual projects differentiated themselves and began their unique research trajectories.  When I was offered the chance in later 2016 to take up the post of Deputy Director at the V&A Research Institute, where I would be in a position to begin actually experimenting with and operationalising process design in museum future-making, I took it.  

 

Traditional medicines for sale at kiosks; Wolong Nature Reserve,

 

Further Links: Sharon MacDonald, Humboldt Professor; Antony Lyons, Filmmaker

[Image References: Svalbard Global Seed Bank Entryway, Norway, by Mari Tefre; Svalbard Global Seed Bank Underground Corridor, by Matthias Heyde; Group Photo, First Team Meeting, Kalmar 2014; IUCN: traditional medicines market, Wolong, China]

Collections-Based Research: University of Reading

researchers_museum_of_english_rural_life_uni_reading

Collections-Based Research Programme Director, University of Reading (first cohort 2013-2014)

An increasing number of researchers from the humanities and beyond understandably want to work directly with material culture: this new programme is focused on skills training to enable these colleagues to collaborate effectively with museum and archive professionals.  As Programme Director, I have been working with University of Reading’s Head of Museums and Special Collections, Kate Arnold-Forster, Professor Alison Donnell of the School of Literature and Languages and Dr Rhianned Smith of the Museum Studies programme to develop the Centre for Collections-Based Research, including the co-design of a unique research skills programme. The programme is built around and in the extraordinary collections, skilled collections staff, and dedicated faculty members who both care for and employ departmental collections in their own research and teaching.  The first cohort of students we are teaching begins this year, and includes several who have received fee-waiver studentships from the University.

 

‘Laboratories’ for the 21st Century, university museums have a key role to play in bringing arts and humanities researchers together with primary source materials in heritage collections.  Straddling museum and faculty practice and disciplines, and having as much experience of working with senior researchers as they do with supporting undergraduate teaching, university collections professionals are inherently interdisciplinary and have been at the forefront of the ‘material turn’ in humanities.  This PhD research skills development programme galvanizes the University of Reading’s collections and the staff that care for them alongside faculty members working in a wide range of subject disciplines.  It is training doctoral researchers across disciplines, whether they will be carrying out research in museums, libraries, archives or universities.

Though some of the learning requirements do overlap, this is not museum studies or library/archive science.  The programme aims to provide postgraduate students with the research skills required to:

successfully navigate collections-based research environments;
develop and answer high-quality research questions informed by multiple methodological approaches including those based in collections;
identify and critique both intellectual and institutional practices and boundaries;  
collaborate effectively with museum and archive professionals as research colleagues

I first visited the University of Reading special collections in the late 1990s when I was completing my MA in the History of the Book on a Commonwealth Scholarship at the University of London.  Reading’s Archive of British Publishing and Printing is an astonishingly rich reserve containing everything from author manuscripts and editorial commentary to printing house ledger books, enabling enlightened researchers to chart the complex connections and counterpoints between modernist aesthetics and market economies (among other things!) through the long 20th Century.

This extraordinarily fertile research asset sits alongside others of equal calibre: the Samuel Beckett Archive and the working collections of the Department of Typography and Graphic Communications are both world-renowned.  Reading is also endowed with two major teaching and research collections which were amassed by two of the University’s earliest professorial appointees — The Ure Museum of Greek Ceramics was founded by Professor Percy Ure on his arrival at Reading in 1911, and Professor of Zoology Francis Cole, appointed in 1907, instated the Cole Museum of Zoology.  Add to this a carefully maintained University Herbarium and the Museum of English Rural Life, and it is clear to see why Reading’s are among the most significant University collections in the UK.

This new Collections-Based Research PhD Programme engages Reading’s collections not only in teaching, and not only as a research asset, but also as a ground in which to teach research skills and methods that are transferable to other endeavours in research arenas that encompass most other collections world-wide.  It is project-based research and teaching.  My own interdisciplinary experience in both research and research management and inter-institutional collaborations is well-deployed here, and I am particularly excited by the range of student subject disciplines in the humanities and the creative arts.  This first cohort includes archaeologists, theatre practitioners, book historians, a typographer working across roman and non-roman letterforms, and a political historian working on wartime radio broadcast propaganda.

[UPDATE: here is the 2015-2016 academic year course schedule]

 

wood_type_university-of-reading

 

The context in which the Reading Collections-Based Research Programme has been developed encompasses a wider national programme financing Collaborative Doctoral Awards (CDAs) through the Arts and Humanities Research Council.  Since 2005, the AHRC has awarded full scholarship CDAs to Higher Education Institutions to partner and co-supervise student projects with non-University research centres. Many of these have been with major museums and archives which are recognised by the AHRC as Independent Research Organisations (IROs).  In 2013, the AHRC awarded block-grant funding to several IRO museums, archives and consortia so that the collections-based institutions could themselves define some of the research questions which would be addressed with the studentships.  The huge interdisciplinary potential of these partnerships is accompanied by the doubling of the range of skills that need to be taught, and the division of supervision across two very different kinds of institution.

These skills are just as important for more seasoned researchers as they are for doctoral candidates — the creation of a sustainable research arena between the academy and the archive involves some serious knowledge transfer.  In their 2008 report Discovering Physical Objects; Meeting Researchers’ Needs, the Research Information Network canvassed both UK museum professionals and the researchers with whom they collaborate to uncover some of the issues both face in their collaborations.  Given the fact that both sides of that collaboration have seen funding heavily cut in the intervening five years in this country, both Reading’s Collections-Based Research PhD Programme and the growth of the CDA Programme are very welcome developments.

Meanwhile, given my own interests in graphic design and natural history, I’m thinking of developing an interdisciplinary project to link together Reading’s typographic holdings and the zoology collections — beginning with the ‘type specimens’!

 

8_mm_film_types_MERL_Bartram

 

Further Links:  Collections-Based Research at University of Reading; University Museums and Special Collections, University of Reading; Collaborative Doctoral Awards Programme AHRC; Independent Research Organisations AHRC; University Museums Group; RIN: Discovering Physical Objects, Meeting Researchers’ Needs

[Image References: Handling paper archives at the University of Reading Archives and Special Collections Reading Room; Researchers examining collections at the Museum of English Rural Life; Wood type collections at University of Reading Department of Typography and Graphic Communications; Two types of 8mm film documented during a recent survey of time-based media conducted by Greta Bertram at MERL for the ACE-funded ‘Countryside21‘ project.]

Museums as Social Learning Spaces: Denmark

thomas_ravn_speaking_at_den_gamle_by_open_air_museum

‘Inclusion and Interdisciplinarity’ at Social Learning Space & Knowledge Producing Processes: the Danish Museums & Galleries User Survey (May 2013)

As part of a group of four international experts, I participated in a week-long tour of Danish Museums which culminated in a two-day conference at the contemporary art museum Arken (13-15 May 2013). Organised by the Danish Government’s Kulturstyrelsen, both the tour and the conference were intended to stimulate practices leading to deeper connections between museums and their visitors, and between the visitors themselves. The other members of the expert group were Lynn Dierking, John Falk, and Amareswar Galla.

 

My contribution to the conference concerned the direct relationship between innovative museum practice and the quality, quantity and kind of visitors that frequent a museum. I proposed that a robust interdisciplinary process of thinking and working – across museum departments and with outside colleagues – can produce projects that inherently engage new audiences, and engage return audiences at a deeper level than ever before. This is certainly an approach that I have deployed to good effect in my own work – not least in a Danish museum, the Medical Museion of the University of Copenhagen.

Each of us four keynote speakers had been paired with a Danish museum: my ‘twin’ for the conference was Naturama, a relatively new and successful visitor attraction that has been built up from an historically significant collection of Danish natural history specimens – The Svendborg Zoologiske Museum.

naturama_svendborg_denmark

I was able to bring together knowledge garnered while I was working at the Natural History Museum (London) and research being effected in animal studies arenas, alongside groundbreaking exhibition projects by artists such as Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson and others, in order to propose some concrete ways in which Naturama – and indeed other natural history museums – can work with their collections to think differently and anew about both nature and visitors.

The Kulturstyrelsen (Danish Agency for Culture) has uploaded to their YouTube channel the video documents made of this and the other presentations at the conference, and it makes really informative viewing. The shift from a focus on project to a focus on process is an important one, and I was impressed by the range and number of delegates to the conference. Over 200 museum professionals attended, and participated in four short workshops devised by the speakers with a view to developing practical tools and strategies to galvanise the their spaces, collections, colleagues and websites into dynamic nodes of social exchange and knowledge production.

The attendees represent the 200 museums and galleries in Denmark that participate every year in the production of a User Survey. Museum visitor surveys and evaluation practices have become ubiquitous, but the design of the questions and the use of the data is rarely as interesting as in the 2012 Danish Kulturstyrelsen Survey and conference. This past year, the survey included a series of questions designed by lifelong learning specialist John Falk (also one of the expert group for the tour and conference) to explore learning styles and visitor motivations far beyond number-and-type demographics.

The outcome is a revelation. Far from the market segmentation of the usual visitor survey, Falk’s approach gives a sense of continuity between visitors and non-visitors, why and how, thoughts and feelings, meeting place and head-space. Outlined in the User Survey publication – which also includes a more traditional, 20th century-style overview of the visitor to Danish Museums – Falk’s approach offers a dynamic set of working propositions for fostering great partnerships between museums and people.

The publication also includes an inspiring introduction by Ida Brændholt Lundgaard, the Kulturstyrelsen’s Senior Adviser for Museums, and her assistant Jacob Thorek Jensen. Danes are not afraid of philosophy, and the introduction is refreshingly coherent in relation to the phenomenological aspects of the museum experience as well as a careful analysis of visitor metrics. It was Ida and Jacob who also organised our tour of Danish museums which preceded the conference.

Over a number of days, they took me, Lynn, John and Amar to see the following museums and meet with their directors and staff to discuss learning partnerships in museum contexts.

  • Kunsten, Museum of Modern Art (Aalborg)
  • Skagen Museum (Skagen)
  • Michael and Anna Anchers House (Skagen)
  • Museum Jorn (Silkeborg)
  • Den Gamle By Open Air Museum (Aarhus)
  • Royal Jelling Monument (Jelling)
  • Naturama (Svendborg)
  • Roskilde Cathedral Heritage Site (Roskilde)
  • Viking Ship Museum (Roskilde)
  • Copenhagen City Museum (Copenhagen)

 

Along the way, we walked in heritage landscapes such as Grenen Strand and the palisades built by Harald Bluetooth in the 900s. We also saw ports and countryside, agricultural histories and seafaring, fishing histories carved into the coast and the loam. This too is highly significant cultural heritage and the interplay with museum and gallery presentation is both subtle and deep. What the trip from Skagen to Svendborg and across to Copenhagen meant was that by the time the ‘expert group’ stood at the podium to present our papers at the conference, we had a much more deeply nuanced sense of the integrity of Danish cultural life and museum practice than would have been imagined even a week before.*

I hope that our visit, so beautifully hosted by the Danish Cultural Agency and the generous museums we visited, has returned this hospitality with useful and inspiring thoughts. Museums and their collections of all kinds have extraordinary potential to radically improve well-being, social cohesion, levels of common knowledge, skills for life, and the capacity for reflection.

skagens_museum_brondums_dining_room

 

 

My lecture has been videocast by the Danish Kulturstyrelsen on their YouTube Channel. The entire conference can be accessed through the Kulturstyrelsen Museums Department website.

Further Links: Danish Kulturstyrelsen Museums Development Department; Naturama; Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson; Amareswar Galla and the Inclusive Museum; John Falk; Lynn Dierking

[Image References: Conference Plenary at Arken in May 2013; Thomas Block Ravn speaking to the visiting expert group at the open air museum Den Gamle By, of which he is the Director; panorama of the land-based animal specimens on display at Naturama; the reconstruction of Brøndum’s dining room at the Skagen Museum]

 

* Over my years of visiting and working in Denmark, I had already attended a raft of other extraordinary museums: Silkeborg Museum and Tollund Man; Moesgaard Museum and Graubelle Man; Brandts Building including the Media Museum; Danish National Museum Copenhagen; Museum of the Danish Resistance; Lyngby Open Air Museum; Brede Werk; Natural History Museum, including the Botanical Gardens and the Geological Musem; Faergegarden Museum; Louisiana Museum; Theatre Museum; National Archives; Royal Library; Royal Danish Arsenal Museum; Danish Museum of Art & Design; National Art Gallery; Rosenborg Castle; Danish Architecture Centre; Danish Design Centre

Senior Research Associate: Reconstructing Sloane

Research and Project Management, Reconstructing Sloane (2011 – present)

 

The vast Enlightenment-era collections amassed by Sir Hans Sloane are the foundation-stone of the British Museum, British Library and Natural History Museum. A major interdisciplinary digital humanities research project to virtually reunite and analyse Sloane’s collections and his own catalogue inventories is now being planned, led by curators and research staff of these institutions. I am collaborating with these colleagues to design, develop and resource the Reconstructing Sloane project. My own related research, investigating collections management as a knowledge producing practice in the early modern period, is supported by both Visiting Fellowships at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, and a Research Scholar Affiliation at the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge.

 

Sloane’s early modern collections of natural history, ethnographia, antiquities, artworks, numismatics, books and manuscripts are now divided across the three world-class institutions which were created by his gift to the nation: the British Museum in Bloomsbury, the British Library in King’s Cross, and the Natural History Musem in South Kensington.  Over the 260 years since his death in 1753, the materials have followed the paths of the disciplines which they themselves in part had spawned: thus the integrity of the collections and their meaning as a coherent site of early modern intellectual practice has been slowly obscured.

Of course, the collections also changed a great deal, in their form and use, over Sloane’s own lifetime, as he was collecting internationally for some 70 years in a period of immense global and intellectual change. The 18th century is arguably the first period of globalisation, and the relationship between trade and intellectual life in this epoch is a subject of considerable interest in a wide range of humanities fields.  The world in which Sloane paid close attention to the messy business of organic life – irreducible to mathematics –  is also the world of Boyle and Hooke, of Locke and Newton, of Leeouwenhoek and Leibnitz.

This exciting project was first proposed in 2010, when a 350th anniversary of Sloane’s birth in 1660 was celebrated by the British Library with a conference. From Books to Bezoars was a wide-ranging two-day event that showed the astonishing breadth of Sloane’s work and influence, even today.  It was organised by Alison Walker, who has been the driving force behind the Sloane Printed Book Project, which aims to locate and identify all books owned and used by Sloane and subsequently bequeathed to what would become the British Library.  It was common practice then, as today, for libraries to sell off duplicate copies of books: a number of Sloane’s books, well used and full of highly significant marginal notes, were auctioned through the 18th and 19th century – no doubt considered at the time to be the grubbier of any two copies the Library owned!

Later that year, in August 2010, a meeting of curatorial and research staff from the British Library, British Museum, Natural History Museum, the Royal Society Centre for History of Science, the Wellcome Library and beyond took place at the NHM under the auspices of its  Centre for Arts and Humanities Research. I was at that time seconded into CAHR as part of its small dynamic research development team, and for that meeting I collated an overview survey of the state of Sloane collections and research across the three institutions.

Before my secondment ended in Spring 2011, we organised several exploratory meetings internally and between the institutions, and the project quickly developed momentum.  Representing the NHM, I worked with Dr Kim Sloan, curator of the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum, and Liz Lewis, Higher Education Partnerships Manager at The British Library, to co-author a 60-page business plan for ‘Reconstructing Sloane.’ Produced in July of 2011, this project development roadmap is now the backbone of the undertaking.  My current research and project management work with the three national institutions picks up from there, and we are now working on project design and resourcing. A particularly exciting prospect is that of working with digital humanities colleagues to quite literally reconstruct, albeit virtually, Sloane’s intellectual world, and to explore what a deep history of ‘information science’ might look like.

Throughout 2012, with support from an Arts and Humanities Research Council ‘Science in Culture’ Networking Grant to the British Museum, the three institutions led some of the most exciting cross-disciplinary seminars and meetings ever to be held about early modern intellectual life and legacy.  These events brought together dozens of disciplinary fields and areas of curatorial expertise, showing just what can be done when museums and universities work together (recordings of many of the proceedings are available online from Backdoor Broadcasting).

 

 

At the Network meeting which took place at the British Museum, I led a breakout session about cataloguing as research, and research into cataloguing itself.  What is of interest to me with Sloane is the unique triangulation between history of science, history of collections, and history of the book – three fields I have always found highly productive.  Sloane’s world is one which could be called ‘pre-disciplinary,’ and requires a highly interdisciplinary team if we are to understand, in the 21st century, what exactly that might mean.

It was nearly 20 years ago that I first heard about Sloane from the man who first brought the history of collections to the attention of other humanities disciplines, Dr Arthur MacGregor.  Arthur edited the volume Sir Hans Sloane: Collector, Scientist, Antiquary (1994), which has become the bible of those of us working on the meanings and use histories of Sloane’s collections.  In a more recent publication, Arthur’s Curiosity and Enlightenment: Collectors and Collections from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries (Yale 2007), we read:

“A parallel evolutionary process can be traced between the development of the cabinet and that of the catalogue.  More than mere inventories, catalogues had a dynamic of their own that contributed not only to the formal registration or recording of collections but also to their analysis and explication at several levels.  Furthermore, the catalogue developed a distinct literary and philosophical programme through which it evolved into a genre that, even if (at least normally) dependent on the collection, was more than merely reflective of it.”

I have been investigating the implications of these ‘evolutionary processes’ between the cabinet and the catalogue during research fellowship periods at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and as an Affiliated Research Scholar at the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science of the University of Cambridge. This is essentially a study of collections management as science, and though my research remit is not limited to Sloane’s work alone, his meticulous attention to the documentation and organisation of his collection is a major focus.

 

 

Three Collaborative Doctoral Awards focusing on Sloane’s collections are now underway:

Collecting and Correspondence: Sloane’s Papers and Scientific Networks (Supervised by Dr Arnold Hunt, British Library and Dr Anne Goldgar, King’s College London)

Putting Nature in a Box: Sloane’s Vegetable Substances (Supervised by Dr Charlie Jarvis, Natural History Museum, and Professor Miles Ogborn, Queen Mary University of London)

Visualizing Natural Knowledge: Sloane’s Albums of Natural History Drawings  (Supervised by Dr Kim Sloan, British Museum, and Dr Elizabeth Eger, King’s College London)

 

Further Links:  Sloane’s Treasures British Museum; Sloane’s Treasures Natural History Museum; British Library Foundation Collections; Sloane Printed Books Project; From Books to Bezoars; British Museum Collections Online; Backdoor Broadcasting Sloane Workshops Podcasts

[Image References: Onyx Cameo of a Goat (16th-17thc, Sloane Collections), British Museum; view of the Enlightenment Gallery, British Museum; page spread from Sloane’s own catalogue of Miscellanies, British Museum; cabinet drawer (c1670), Centraal Museum, Utrecht.]

Natural History Museum: CAHR

Vice-Chancellor’s Investment Fund Secondment, Centre for Arts and Humanities Research, Natural History Museum (London):  Kingston University  (2009 to 2011)

 

This key two-year post was central to a small dynamic team developing an arts and humanities research hub inside this national museum with international reach, where 300 scientists are at work studying plant and animal genetics, geology and mineralogy, the structure of the universe, biodiversity, climate change and more.

Having worked at the Science Museum (London) and the Medical Museion (Copenhagen), as well as a number of fine art museums, I was excited to see the advertisement for this post — which was headlined: “Would you like to work in a creative, fulfilling and exciting environment, where you will have the opportunity to explore the world class Natural History Museum collections?”

I felt I could answer that question clearly and succinctly in the affirmative.

The ad continued: this is “an innovative new project, which aims to explore the potential of the Museum collections as a resource for arts and humanities research. With a relevant postgraduate degree and a successful record of applying for and obtaining external research income, you will have the ability to build effective networks within the field of humanities and work in productive partnership with academic colleagues.”  Just as interesting to me as the collections was this opportunity to help operationalise the highly interdisciplinary practice that would be the outcome of a successful integration of arts and humanities researchers into this scientific research institute.

I already had experience of aligning methodologies across arts and science through individual projects, and had been consulted for strategic development advice by institutions such as the Royal Society and the Science Museum vis à vis resourcing the research potential of their collections. This project would be a chance to be directly effective at an institutional scale in implementing change.

The NHM is essentially UK science infrastructure for systematics, taxonomics and biodiversity: the excitement for me was in the potential for enabling productive links between the vast range of biological research methods at the NHM and those of arts and humanities researchers that CAHR, as it came to be known, would bring in.

My work with organic collections and with contemporary molecular and microbiological practices at the Medical Museion was a very good grounding for moving into natural history fields like zoology and entomology. I was at home in both the collections environment and the lab areas: it is an amazing institution and every day of the week there was something astounding to see and understand.

A crucial linchpin of information management about specimens from across the Museum — in Zoology, Entomology, Botany, Mineralogy and Palaeontology — is the incredibly rich NHM Library and Archives. For the 350 pre-digital years of the Museum’s specimen collecting practice, any relevant observations including locations and dates were kept in notebooks and manuscripts, and the trade in specimens involved of necessity various forms of scientific visualisation. Thus 500,000 images of nature from the world over are also part of the collection.

 

 

Taken as a whole, these rich and diverse collections trace a wide spectrum from the history of science to the history of empire, from epistemologies of observational practice to ontologies of data-mining. With associated field notes, films, photographs, diaries, drawings, ship’s logs, correspondence and both GIS and DNA data, the Natural History Museum specimen collections are a rich resource for investigation. Fields as varied as history, philosophy, museology, anthropology, literary studies, film and photo studies, animal studies, cultural theory and area studies relating to South Asia, Africa, China and elsewhere find firm purchase and important primary materials in the NHM collections.

My post involved me in gaining a detailed understanding of the historical and scientific basis of the NHM collections, their management and use. With the generous support of NHM staff, I effected more than 25 specimen collection and laboratory research visits, and produced a 35 page strategy document outlining an appropriate and fundable research programme divided into several interlocking sections:

  • Natural History, Global History
  • Visual Cultures Of Natural History
  • Literatures And Texts Of Natural History
  • Museum As Laboratory: ‘Improving Natural Knowledge’
  • Facilitating Interdisciplinarity
  • Sharing Knowledge

 

Under ‘Natural History, Global History’ I wrote:

The co-production of understandings of the natural world with the development of empires – both financial and geo-political – is the subject of this Research Cluster. The recent ‘material turn’ in historical research is beginning to extend beyond the holdings of cultural museums to address collections whose primary purpose has been scientific investigation, with its attendant specific histories and economies.

The unique qualities of natural history specimens and the geospatial and temporal data which accompanies them means that they function as information-rich pivots for historical investigation. Who collected these specimens – from indigenous groups to Presidents of the Royal Society – and how and why they were collected – from instrumentation and instruction to economic botany – is in essence a history of the world since 1500. The circulation of specimens, ideas and goods is concomitant, and an examination of this nexus over time is a key epistemological endeavour in which the Museum can play a central role.

Humanities researchers are best placed to analyse the often widely divergent and physically disparate sets of written records which can join up dots to plot the movement of ideas and objects through time and space. This would be a contribution not only to history and epistemology, but also to current science, by enabling the reintegration of point reference data with earlier collections.

 

I identified and developed contacts with researchers internationally who have the skills to effect this work, including drawing up a longlist for the Centre Advisory Board, and assisting with its formation. With other members of the team (Julie Harvey, Centre Manager; Dr Charlie Jarvis, Scientific Advisor; Nadja Noel, Project Coordinator) I organised and hosted both pro-active and responsive meetings and collection visits with potential partners, individual and institutional. A considerable part of the post involved enabling and promoting partnerships for CAHR with universities, research councils, foundations, libraries and other major museums.

Zoology, taxonomy and systematics are structurally very interesting activities, with complex institutional and linguistic regimes and instrument practices, and I also developed two research project proposals rooted in these fields. One of them related taxonomic nomenclature to philosophy of language, and another outlined a methodologies-exchange between zoological scientists and animal studies researchers. One outcome of the latter was the lecture programme Unruly Creatures, convened by Kingston Professor John Mullarkey. I also represented CAHR at a range of external conferences, from Scientific Visualisation in the Age of Computerisation to In Kind: Species of Exchange in Early Modern Science and Museums and Restitution.

The Centre ran a number of larger projects during the period of my tenure, some of which I was also directly involved in. I co-organised the conference Science Voices (at the Royal Society) which examined oral history of science as part of Museum Lives — a Kingston University AHRC-funded Knowledge Transfer project to interview 50 NHM members of staff. I also became closely involved in the project initiation phase of ‘Reconstructing Sloane’ — a cross-institutional project between the NHM, the British Library and the British Museum, which intends to reunite, analyse and make accessible the original foundation collections of all three institutions as constituted by Sir Hans Sloane in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Representing the NHM, I worked with Dr Kim Sloan, curator of the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum, and Liz Lewis, Higher Education Partnerships Manager at The British Library, to co-author a 60-page business plan for ‘Reconstructing Sloane.’ Produced in July of 2011, this project initiation document is now the backbone of the project, supporting the Consortium’s unfolding work on Sloane.

Institutional business planning, communication strategy creation and implementation, participation in policy and procedure development advocating for the humanities researcher, lecture series curation and management, mentoring, fundraising and more were also part of my work for the Centre. Working across both the Museum and Kingston University, I helped Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences researchers formulate projects through the Museum, and collaborated with KU’s Museum and Gallery Studies director Dr Duncan Grewcock and NHM Public Engagement Staff to design and deliver postgraduate teaching and learning.

Since the end of my tenure, Kingston University has instated five research Fellowships at the NHM Centre under the rubrics I identified in my CAHR strategy document: I look forward to the outcomes.

 

 

You can hear a podcast of my lecture Natural History, Global History, presented at the launch of the Centre for the Historical Record conference ‘Providing Public History: Challenges and Opportunities‘ (10/06/2011) Kingston University.

Further Links:  Centre for Arts and Humanities Research at the Natural History Museum; Unruly Creatures 1; Unruly Creatures 2; London Graduate School, Kingston University; Visualisation in the Age of Computerisation; In Kind: Species of Exchange in Early Modern Science; Museums and Restitution; Museum and Gallery Studies, Kingston University; Centre for the Historical Record; Reconstructing Sloane’

[Image References: Lepidoptera Collections, Natural History Museum; Earth Sciences Librarian Hellen (Pethers) Sharman displaying William Smith’s Geological Map of English (1815) for geological historians; the Central Hall of the NHM]

Barbara Howard: Canadian Art

Drawing Attention: Barbara Howard’s Ecologies, in Canadian Art Magazine (Summer 2006)

 

As is the case for many others, I have been deeply informed and influenced by the work of artists who came before me.  There have also been kind and brilliant mentors and role-models, from childhood on.  Sometimes, these have even been the same person — the Canadian artist Barbara Howard, now sadly deceased, was both.

Barbara and her husband, the poet Richard Outram, were close friends of my parents, and a big part of the childhood I shared with my brother and sister. Environmentalists and knowledgeable naturalists, they taught me a respect for the natural world that echoes through into my animal studies interests. Both were dedicated and disciplined artists, and their example (among others) showed me what kind of stamina, technique, method and rigour were required to make a serious contribution to cultural life. They were also both extremely amusing, and often quite ribald.

Several years after her untimely death in 2002, I wrote about Barbara’s life and work for Canadian Art Magazine — a journal in which my own work has often appeared:

“Doubtless the first time I saw sustained attention paid to anything as infinitesimal as an insect, it was in Barbara’s meticulously drawn articulations of living things. Durer’s astounding watercolour of a Stagbeetle and its shadow may have been made 500 years ago, but it was Barbara’s wood engraving of dragonflies I would have seen first. In this, she trained me to look closely at nature, she prepared me for the blinding genius of Durer, and she showed me what hard work and discipline was involved in being an artist.

Unique to Barbara was the transmission of the integrity of these lessons: the conviction that there is a direct link between the arenas of art, nature and daily practice. She was an environmental artist avant la lettre, and the ecologies which she herself practised extended clearly into domains of intellectual, social and spiritual health the interconnectedness of which is only now beginning to be acknowledged — perhaps most notably in the writings of Felix Guattari.

Differentiating historically between serious investigations of what it means to be part of Gaia in Canada or elsewhere and those works of art intended to create a comfort zone of nature porn will require looking closely at work that has not yet been the subject of critical attention. In the immediate, it means not only looking at generations of artists trained and working prior to (and through) the design and conceptual boom of the 60s and the emergence of support structures of the 70s, but also looking at the contexts and techniques of those artists. Barbara Howard’s work is an important place to begin such a project.

What we are doing when we look at animals, how we look at them, and what we do with those observations has in the last decade been a subject of sustained critical inquiry in visual culture and in history of science, from the work of Nigel Rothfels on zoos, to Steve Baker on contemporary art, and Lorraine Daston on attention to nature in the Enlightenment. The relationship between technique and looking, between eye and hand, between what one chooses to look at closely and long and what one is consequently ignoring are all as important as what is in the centre of the final image. Barbara’s work in wood-engraving throughout the 1970s, which was mainly focused on living creatures, is a case in point: drawing attention to something is the first step towards exploring the big picture which surrounds it.”

“These engravings by Barbara Howard were in the main also effected for hand produced books: those of the Gauntlet Press which she and Richard Outram began in the 1960s. Indeed, most of the engravings reproduced here are from one book — entitled Creatures — a work full of awe yet entirely devoid of sentimentality.

Creatures was published in 1972, only a few years after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and a few years before Three Mile Island melted down. The rapid and alarming acceleration of visible effects of the degradation of nature into the 80s brought many of us up sharp against the ‘big picture.’ Barbara wrote this in 1987:

“We must constantly attempt to become more fully human… I am concerned, as we all must be, about what we, through greed and ignorance, are doing to the natural world; to the world and all its life forms including, of course, ourselves. I am not an activist and I am not a preacher… I am an artist and believe in doing what I do best as an artist. To be an artist requires of one the deepest concern allied to detachment, otherwise one cannot accomplish one’s work. In my work I am attempting to explore and reveal the essential inter-dependence of all life; to communicate what I have seen, what I love, to engage the viewer in a response of love and celebration and hence deep concern for all that we must treasure or risk losing forever. I must share what I love, to give some insight into what I discover and see as the treasures of existence, which are everywhere to be found, to be seen for the looking.”

 

 

Further Links: Barbara HowardCanadian Art; Gauntlet Press at Memorial University; Gauntlet Press Digitised at Memorial University

[Image Credits: Barbara Howard painting Arlette’s Garden (1984); Barbara Howard painting in the kitchen of the Massey House (1952); Monarch, Fish, Dragonflies, Frogs, Lobster, Owl and Snake, from Creatures (1972) all courtesy the Literary and Artistic Estates of Barbara Howard and Richard Outram]