The poetics of the natural history museum around 1900



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Project 2: Brita Brenna: "The poetics of the natural history museum around 1900"
In 1899, Jørgen Brunchorst, botanist and director of Bergen Museum, wrote two articles for Naturen (Nature) magazine on the great natural history museums in Paris and London. The Paris museum had new buildings, but they were furnished in a style that did not fit the time. The natural history museum in London was, on the other hand, perhaps one of the world's best natural history museums, according to Brunchorst. First, it had implemented a clear separation between sections meant for the general public to view the exhibitions and sections for serious study. Second, the zoological department was divided into an educational collection, a British collection and a systematic collection. Into dissemination, natioinbuilding and research.
Brunchorst particularly appreciated the educational collection. "It is ... an illustrated textbook, and any student will when using it progress further in two weeks that when using a textbook and explanations for two semesters" (Brunchorst: 39). The groups of British birds were also much praised. In the display cases, sand, stone, straw and trees had been collected from the original environments of the animals, often as authentic material. Into this setting whole families of birds had been placed in their natural environments. "Thus the genre picture is complete," Brunchorst writes. "Each group is a small work of art. There is just as much art in this as in the production of one of the paintings from the animal kingdom, only the means are different. But why should the designation of art be restricted to only those presentations that are made using a brush or modelling knife?" (Brunchorst: 46). Through his articles Brunchorst in Naturen presented a new poetics for modern natural history exhibitions. What happened when these ideas were to be given practical designs?
This project will analyze debates, conflicts and negotiations related to architecture and exhibition in Norwegian natural history museums during the decades around1900. In addition to the international discourse on museum buildings, exhibition and collection technology will be included, particularly paying attention to how the Norwegian museums approach this discourse (for this debate see, for example, Yanni 2005, Beckman 1999). The actual form and functioin of the museums will be studied, as far as they are documented, and analysed in relation to the preceding process. Which understandings of nature are being negotiated, and which social understandings? How do conflicts appear in the concrete building and exhibition discussions? Which aesthetic practices are appreciated as means of presenting good nature? Which practices are rejected? Who are the actors in the debates, and who manage to mobilize others behind their goals? At the same time as the debates on new technical exhibition and architectonic frameworks in the natural history museums were going one, there was also a discussion on exhibition practices in the cultural history museums (Hillstrøm 2006). Paradoxically it appears that the contextual framework, the diorama and the "genre picture", to use Brunchorst's term, became a privileged form in the natural history museums, while increasingly being designated as non-scientific in the cultural history museums. Dissemination, nationbuilding and research were to mean different things in the two types of institutions. The development in the natural historical museums is important comparative material.
Material and method: The empirical material will comprise articles in periodicals, newspaper articles, pictures, plans and minutes from meetings. The topics range from the refurbishing and new construction in Bergen from the late 1890s to the start of construction at Tøyen in Oslo in 1910-17. The project’s methodology will be to use science and technology studies inspired by Foucault, paying particular attention to the way objects, texts and signs have been analysed in laboratory studies. Tony Bennett's works on museums as laboratories for transformations of nature will be an important source (Bennett 2005). Earlier works, such as Donna Haraway's analysis of natural history museums as materiality and narrative (Haraway 1989), and Susan Leigh Star's designation of the term boundary object in her analysis of a natural history museum, will also be important sources of inspiration(Star and Griesmeier 1989).
Selected literature:

Beckman, Jenny 1999: Naturens palats. Nybygnad, vetenskap och utställning vid Naturhistoriska riksmuseet 1866-1925. Atlantis: Stockholm

Bennett, Tony 2005: “Civic laboratories: museums, cultural objecthood, and the governance of the social”. CRESC Working paper series, The Open University, Milton Keynes.

Haraway, Donna 1989: Primate Visions. Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science. Routledge: New York and London

Hillström, Magdalena 2006: Ansvaret för kulturarvet. Linköping Studies in Arts and Science No. 363.

Irmscher, Christoph 1999: The Poetics of Natural History. From John Bartram to William James. Rutgers University Press New Brunswick,: New Jersey, and London

Jardine, N, Secord J.A., Spary, E.C. (1996) 1997: Cultures of Natural History. Cambridge University Press: New York

Latour, Bruno 2004: Politics of Nature. Harvard University Press, Cambr. Mass.

Secord, Anne 1994: ”Science in the pub: artisan botanists in early nineteenth-century Lancashire”, History of Science, 32.

Star, Susan Leigh og J.R. Griesemer 1989: ”Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects” In Social Studies of Science, vol 19, no. 3.

Stearn, William T. (1981) 2001: The Natural History Museum at South Kensington. The Natural History Museum: London,

Yanni, Carla 1999: Nature's museums : Victorian science and the architecture of display, Baltimore, Md. : Johns Hopkins University Press



Wonders, Karen 1993: Habitat Dioramas. Illusions of Wilderness in Museums of Natural History. Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis Figura Nova Series 25.

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