|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 André 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.