The Wilds and The Deep

The Wilds and The Deep: Martha Fleming & Lyne Lapointe, Battery Maritime Ferry Terminal New York City (1990, produced with Creative Time)


At the bottom tip of Manhattan, this large-scale site project explored the origins of museums in colonial practice. Next to the Staten Island Ferry terminal, the Battery Maritime Building — then partially abandoned — was constructed on the site of one of the oldest sea landing points in North America. All manner of goods, animate and inanimate, would have sailed to and from that point, and by the 19th century, all immigrants who made it past Ellis Island would have had to come through its portal. The Wilds and The Deep was about nature and individuals caught up in historical processes of consumption that have produced everything from princely collections to the subjugation of entire peoples.

The Battery Maritime Building (1909) is a huge, sprawling site, and at the time it was loaned to Creative Time as part of a planning process for Lower Manhattan. Lyne Lapointe and I were commissioned by Creative Time to create this major site-specific public art project, and together we worked with The Mayor’s Office for Culture and The New York City Department of Transportation.

Focusing the crosshairs of research that we had already effected in the history of museums for Le Musée des Sciences (1984) and in the history of natural history for Eat Me / Drink Me / Love Me (1989), Lyne Lapointe and I created our fourth major site-specific project, under the aegis of Creative Time.  Between auto da fe and el dorado, between the devil and the deep blue sea, The Wilds and The Deep inhabited the building’s roof, ferry gangways, waiting rooms, piers and balconies.



From our original project proposal of 1988:

For over 300 years, that protected spot in the leeward crook at the bottom of Mannados has been a point of embarkation, and droves of people knew New York first through the glittering windows of The Battery Maritime Building.

But the building itself is an ‘outcropping,’ a majestic, resolute rune marking a site which also has a pre-history, a history of first peoples, told in a spiral rather than in a line, a history distant from the required cause and effect of the chronology of European expansionism. A history which did not care whether or not its shores were India. And even further back in time, though no further up the river than Newburgh, a mastodon gave up its bones to the millennia in the shifting banks of the Hudson, only to be ‘discovered’ by Peale at the dawn of the 19th Century. Perhaps, in its own way, The Battery Maritime Building, abandoned to all but tribal memory, recently ‘discovered,’ is itself a mammoth of a kind of pre-history, with its sturdy, serviceable legs sunk deep into the mud of the port itself, and two phantom tusks jutting out towards the water.

THE WILDS AND THE DEEP is a project which we have been working on since August of 1987, about the ideological origins of museums and their vested interests. It concerns the relationship between mercantile interests and research by Old World ethnologists and natural historians through the colonisation periods, and how these interests meshed with the creation of object-museums in royal European houses. In a museum, this material is the booty of conquest, which is the hidden agenda of ‘voyages of discovery.’ With this fourth project for a building, we wish to dis-order and fragment the mercantile, possessive, accumulative and expansionist meanings created with objects in the name of History and the Natural Sciences.

Stated very simply, the project is about the traffic in nature, and particularly the active role of naturalists and men of science in the undertaking of colonisation, and the way in which the capture of nature in the 16th and 17th century ties into empire building. For example, the origin of the idea of museums was in fact a princely past-time, where European royal houses and later wealthy individuals would collect specimens, objects and living things which came from the places they were colonising.


In the intervening 20 years and more, my views on this have become more nuanced and more informed, of course. I have since that time had direct experience with the very collections amassed in this way, at the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum London, and tangentially at the Medical Museion in Copenhagen. The push and pull between questions of museological restitution to source communities and the kinds of ecological/biodiversity answers these historical materials can now, uniquely, give, is an important feature of current museum ethics debates.

And of course, in the intervening years, there have also been major developments in the field of the history of collecting and museums, and in the history of colonisation and the Atlantic which have charted much of the same territory but in a different way.  But in 1990, the phrase ‘cabinet of curiosities’ was recherché.  For Lyne and I, the major beacons then were Impey and MacGregor’s Origins of Museums (Oxford, 1985) and Adalgisa Lugli’s Naturalia et Mirabilia (Mazzotta, 1983); but also Candide by Voltaire, and Melville’s Moby Dick.

Living and working in New York for those few years at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, while Lyne and I were creating this project and also showing at the New Museum, was both demanding and nourishing.  There is more to come on all that.



Further Links:  Creative Time

[Image References: all images are of The Wilds and The Deep by Martha Fleming and Lyne Lapointe (New York, 1990) with the exception of the second image on this page, which is the earliest known map of Manhattan — Nieuw Amsterdam — from 1660, known as the Castello Plan, from New York Public Library’s digital repository. Colour photographs of The Wilds and The Deep are by Marik Boudreau]