The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
Is collecting nature or nurture? Some thoughts on a little “museum” of found objects I saw on vacation last week.
Museum directors of a certain stripe are fond of saying that collecting is a universal human impulse, especially among kids. The idea is that all kinds of people can relate to museums because everyone knows first-hand the thrill of gathering, organizing, comparing, and studying cool stuff — and it doesn’t matter whether the stuff in question is Renaissance sculpture or dead, soon-to-be-smelly sea stars that washed up in the tide.
Last week, at a hotel my family and I were staying at on St. Martin (I know, it’s a dog’s life), we noticed that a table near the beach had been covered by a collection of shells, corals, seaweeds, sea-glass, stones, and other eye-catching specimens. It seemed to belong to everyone and no one, and a security guard I asked told me that it had been there about two months. During our week there we added a few things to it and saw other guests (kids and adults) do the same. Everyone seemed to enjoy picking things up, touching them, rearranging. There was also some taking away, as my daughters and I discovered when the sea star we contributed was gone the next day.
Still, I found it delightful. (My girls never got past their indignation that some people were treating it as a trading post.) In this age of participatory engagement and what Clay Shirky has called “the power of organizing without organizations,” here was a community collection that had arisen without rules or even communication but which mirrored (in a raw, messy way) some very old museological impulses: it was organized by form but in a pre-taxonomic way; it mixed biological and inorganic samples, marine and land species, the everyday and the exotic; it seemed to evolve over time as better specimens of the same sort or new categories altogether were added (and others were “deaccessioned” for communal or selfish reasons); and it was of course unlabeled, a piece of installation art as much as armchair science.
In short, it reminded me of the cabinets of curiosities that preceded the systematic natural history collections of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (The photo is one of the drawers of Alfred Russell Wallace’s collection, now at the American Museum of Natural History. Also see Stephen Asma’s terrific book on those collections and their museum descendants).
But this doesn’t tell us whether the impulse to collect and display in this way is innate or learned from a specific cultural context. The guests at that hotel are almost all white Americans and Europeans who were raised on Western civ and Enlightenment institutions, including natural history museums. Did those museums teach them to collect and share those specimens at the beach? Would Maori New Zealanders or Chinese farmers — heck, would Americans from the minority communities that museums call "underserved" — have done the same?
Or did a natural human drive to collect and display this way inspire both that little square of shells and the grand natural history museums of New York, Washington, London, and Paris? I may have to fly back down there for another week or two of grueling research...
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