Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Resilient Tree and the Other Side of Paradise

Christopher Long, Dean of the MSU  College of Arts and Letters, recently drew my attention to the remarkable ‘resilient tree’, still growing, against all odds, along the walkway that connects  the MSU Museum to Linton Hall (the earlier site of the Museum).   As explained by botany professor Frank Telewski in 

this surprisingly long-lived white oak was heavily damaged in a storm in July 2016. Although its inner core was extensively rotted, the exterior zone of the surviving trunk is sufficiently healthy that the organism continues to sprout healthy leaves and branches. Dr. Telewski notes that the tree, which may date to the mid-17th century, had been “topped”, or extensively pruned, in the late 1850s or early 1860s, in order to induce a more pleasing, bushy appearance among the trees of the old campus. A wound resulting from this harsh “topping” was subsequently covered with a metal sheet metal cap, which Dr. Telewski re-discovered in inspecting the damaged tree after the 2016 storm. The tree’s root system had presumably long suffered by the sidewalk that has run along it for many decades.

It occurs to me the complex history of this tree is an example of a phenomenon I have long been interested in, the ‘underside” of utopian imagery in campus landscape architecture.  In previous work, I have explored traces of submerged histories of slavery in the landscape of Emory College in Georgia, and other U.S. college and university campuses:
https://southernspaces.org/2010/other-side-paradise-glimpsing-slavery-universitys-utopian-landscapes       (This discussion is expanded in Chapter Five of my book The Accidental Slaveowner  

For a millennia, universities have been structured as utopian spaces, permitting their visitors and residents tangible glances of the Eternal. Yet in much of the United States, these physical models of Paradise rested upon the coerced labor of enslaved peoples, who were owned or rented by university administrations.  The long-ignored histories of the enslaved can be, in many instances, gradually teased out if we learn how to listen to the stories that the land and descendant communities have to tell.  As my consultant Emogene Williams puts it, Emory College was a kind of “paradise” for its students and professors; yet the African American community that in slavery and post slavery helped to build and maintain the campus labored and dwelled, in her words,  “on the other side of Paradise.”

Michigan was of course a free state. In contrast to colleges in the South and along the eastern seaboard, the early Michigan Agricultural College (the forerunner of Michigan State University)  did not directly rest upon the labor of enslaved people. (Although one might argue that, in a distant fashion, antebellum commercial agricultural production in the Great Lakes region was partly driven by the growing demand for produce to feed four million enslaved persons in the US South.)   In any event, is there not a sense that the hoped for utopian landscape of the College rested upon another form of subjugation, of a struggle for supremacy over the natural world?  The M.A.C. was built over a previously dense forest. The original oaks appeared overly thin and spindly to the college’s early residents. “Topping” was an effort to produce a rounded, full appearance to the trees dotting the college landscape, more in keeping with the era’s growing pastoral conceptions.  (New York’s Central Park, the epitome of this pastoral aesthetic, was designed by Olmstead and Vaux in the 1850s, the same decade that saw the creation of the M.A.C.).  The urban park movement itself had emerged in part of the suburban pastoral cemetery movement, in which the Dead were afforded permanent rest in a physical simulacrum of their Heavenly reward. Pleasantly rounded trees, in concert with gently rounded hills, were key to this redemptive and soothing window into the Great Beyond.  Such a vision became increasingly important in American campus landscape architecture, in which youth were invited to contemplate the university’s mysteries in equally other worldly, serene environs, which also echoed the mythos of Eden, before Adam and Eve’s loss of innocence and their expulsion from the Garden.

The surviving white oak trunk is justly celebrated on campus for its resilience in the face of storm and calamity. Yet I am equally fascinated by its long term, recently-exposed wound, a product of an effort, over 150 years ago, to reshape this striking natural being into a mythical image of “nature,” in a project to re-create a vision of paradise for campus residents--adjacent to the early residence hall, now known, appropriately, as “Saint’s Rest.”  Universities and museums are all caught up in vital utopian projects, in a mythos that attempts to arrest death and decay, to allow us step outside of the normal flow of events, and contemplate the mysteries of time and the universe from extraordinary vantage points. We should honor and celebrate the precious qualities of that ritual project, which allows us to transcend the everyday and struggle for deeper forms of understanding and creation. Yet, as the resilient oak tree, and its long-hidden wound reminds us, we should also continue to contemplate the concealed histories of domination and  implicit violence, against persons and natural beings, upon which our utopian projects continue to rest.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Museums and the Anthropocene

As the (brand new) Director of the Michigan State University Museum (MSUM), I’ve been giving particular thought of late to the strengths and limitations of the term, “The Anthropocene” in museum contexts. The term, as is well known, is rather a “portmanteau” word that has been variously used by scholars to characterize world history since: (a) the first nuclear explosions in 1945,  (b) since c. 1780 and the rise of the industrial revolution, (c)  dating back to the Neolithic Revolution and the rise of agriculture about 13,000 years ago, or even (d)  back to the late Upper Paleolithic and the rise of particularly effective human mass hunting strategies, perhaps 17.000 or 18,000 years ago.  Whatever the specific timescale being invoked, the posited era is characterized by one or more of the following: human-caused climate change, rising ocean temperatures, a profound decline in animal and plant biodiversity, a rise in mass extinctions (the “sixth great extinction” era) and anticipated dramatic rises in sea level.
State of Exception exhibition (Richard Barnes)

For a museum like MSUM— featuring major collections in natural history, archaeology, ethnology, folk arts, and cultural history—the “Anthropocene” is clearly an engaging concept, suggesting promising avenues for integrating diverse collections, exhibitions, public programs and research projects. One could imagine fascinating exhibitions, for example, linking the visual and performance arts of modern refugee communities to migration patterns induced by global climate dynamics (e.g. droughts, cyclones, aquifer depletion);  or, using ornithological, mammalian, and cultural collections to tell stories about how different societies have understood extinction events over the past several centuries; or,  relating Great Lakes archaeological materials on the rise of maize cultivation millennia ago to present day debates around the world about the politics of monoculture and the centralization of control over seed distribution;  or,  drawing on collections of indigenous watercraft and stilt houses to suggest creative ways humanity might cope with “Waterworld”-like futures; or, interpreting aesthetic representations of nature, landscape, and natural species in diverse global cultures in reference to nostalgic impulses born of massive habitat loss and biodiversity reduction. (Such a show might start with Dutch landscaping paintings, which prominently featured windmills and reclaimed former underwater lands as a celebration of the power of Capital to transform the visible world.) 

In an era in which arts and humanities funding is increasingly imperiled, it is perhaps inevitable that we as curators and museum administrators seek to recast much of our work as being “STEM-relevant,” as explicable and salient within scientific and technological frameworks. My impression is that a number of major museums around the world, including the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, are increasingly headed in this direction: exhibition and research projects that can present themselves as related to the “Anthropocene,” have better odds of being funded, approved, and nurtured. At a time when we all find ourselves having to make  the case for the continuing value of scientific and cultural collections, it is always useful to cite instances in which these collections can be used to help evaluate the past impact of climate and environmental change, and potentially suggest solutions for future climate-triggered upheavals.  The impulse here is not entirely cynical; there are to be sure, genuinely fascinating intellectual connections to drawn out for our publics, in exhibitions about how domains of human culture can be fruitfully reinterpreted with an eye to dramatic global environmental transformations.

Having said that, I'm uneasy about a headlong embrace of the “Anthropocene” as the be all and end all of museum exhibitions and initiatives. To begin with, one of the most important functions of museums is deepening the public’s wonder and knowledge about the vast range of the non-human, to contemplate temporal and spatial scales and dynamics far beyond the human realm-- as valuable in and of themselves. Museums offer glorious vistas in radical alterity,  opportunities to behold the glories of stellar nurseries thousands of light years away (the topic of the most recent exhibit I’ve worked on) or the pulsating soundscapes and lightscapes and crickets and fireflies (which I wrote about in my last blog post , on  Robin Meier and AndrĂ© Gwerder’s remarkable Synchronicity installation at the Broad). To be sure, there are fascinating human-related elements to all these topics, such as, in the case of the molecular clouds in which stars are born,  the ingenious use of new space-born instruments to perceive and analyze data gathered from non visible segments of the Electromagnetic spectrum, and the complex digital algorithms used to create dazzling color enhanced photographs of stellar nurseries. Yet, the value of these kinds of important natural phenomena should never be reduced solely to the human: otherwise, museums risk a kind of solipsism in which our species alone becomes the measure of all things.

In turn, there are risks in reducing the enormously complex tapestries of human cultures, including visual and performance arts, to a kind of uni-dimensional environmental calculus. As Claude Levi-Strauss long ago observed, while human cultural imaginations have long been obsessed with faunal and floral speciation, and long used metaphors of species differentiation as foundations for thinking about society and personhood, the complex structure of how those species are evaluated in any given human culture cannot be reduced to their material functionality. As Levi Strauss famously observes in The Science of the Concrete, “species are not known because they are used; they are used because they are known.”  Museums need to convey the dynamic interplay between meaning and environment in any given sociocultural order, without reducing one to the other.

An interesting, thought-provoking example of an “Anthropocene”-framed exhibition is State of Exception, organized by anthropologist Jason de Leon, recently on view at the University of Arizona and the Parsons School of Design in New York City. Inspired by De Leon’s remarkable book, The Land of Open Graves, the exhibition provides a heartbreaking archaeology of the present, chronicling the stories of economic migrants who traverse (or fail to traverse) the Sonora desert borderlands between Mexico and the United States. The exhibition centers on a startling installation of the backpacks, water bottlers, images of the Virgin of  Guadalupe, and other ephemera left behind by migrant women and men, objects which in many cases come to function as symbolic substitutes for the never-recovered human remains of those who have succumbed to snakebite, dehydration, or homicide during ill-fated desert crossing. The exhibition subtly explores the intersection between political, cultural, and environmental factors in contributing to this little understood body count. De Leon’s text emphasizes the ways in which the US Department of Homeland Security deploys, in effect, the Sonora desert as an alibi for the mass death of refugees. Even though border control policy funnels refugees into dangerous desert zones, this policy is left unstated, so that thousands of deaths can be attributed to “natural causes.”  The migrants themselves can in many instances be understood as climate or agro-policy refugees, in many instances driven north by the dumping of cheap US grown corn into Mexican and Central American markets.

The exhibition intensifies the spectral qualities of these inanimate reliquaries by having audio tracks of the voices of migrants emerge as if from within the abandoned backpacks. The gallery space here is figured as an uncanny frontier between the living and the dead, which holds up a particularly disturbing mirror to North American viewers who bear a degree of complicity in current US immigration policy.   Here then is a museum project that powerfully foregrounds the dramatic eco-scapes of the Anthropocene, without reducing the meaning and impact of mass human migration to purely environmental factors or determinants. For all us in the business of integrative, interdisciplinary museum projects, this is surely an example worth pondering.