Be Kind

I was honoured to be asked to curate an online exhibit on the subject of “Humane Education” for the National Museum of Animals & Society (NMAS) this year. After several months of research and preparation, the exhibit is now live. I enjoyed working on this project, thrilled to have had the opportunity to bring this story to a broader audience. So many people helped make this exhibit a reality, and I’m so grateful for all of their kindness, hard work, and generosity.

The NMAS is a wonderful museum dedicated to preserving the history of human-animal relationships, a history that has until very recently been woefully neglected by curators, historians, and academics. This is an important history, and the work that the NMAS is doing is so valuable. If you have any artefacts relating to the history of human-animal relationships or advocacy campaigns from previous eras that you would like to donate to the museum, they would love to hear from you!

Animal Body Worlds

Gunther von Hagens has launched another sensational exhibition, Body Worlds of Animals. Like the original Body Worlds, this exhibition uses plastination to preserve and exhibit dead bodies. Unlike the original exhibition, however, these bodies belonged to nonhuman animals before they became part of this exhibit. (Although I do recall a horse being included in the original Body Worlds, however, the focus there was most decidedly on human anatomy.)

There are, apparently, a wide range of animal bodies included in this exhibition. According to The Telegraph, several of these animal bodies were donated to the exhibition by the Neunkirchen Zoo. Through this donation we are encouraged to keep gazing upon these animals for our own entertainment, education, and enlightenment, even after their death. Unlike the dead humans in the original Body Worlds, these animals did not (could not?) give consent for their bodies to be used in this manner any more than they gave their consent to have been put on display in the zoo in the first place.

On the website for this exhibition Dr. von Hagens states that: “The more the individual thinks about the fragility of his or her body, the more respectful he or she will become toward other people and animals. BODY WORLDS of ANIMALS makes a valuable contribution to animal welfare and to increased appreciation of endangered species. The exhibition strongly supports the educational mission of the zoo and animal welfare organizations.”

The argument, it appears, is that this exhibition makes viewers realize the “fragility” of their bodies and, in turn, this leads to a heightened sense of appreciation of other species. This is a pretty tenuous link, one that echoes numerous arguments that have been made in favour of public zoos and animal theme parks throughout their history. According to this line of thinking, seeing animals in captivity or as “performers” somehow will make humans better appreciate nonhuman animals. The abundance of animal cruelty cases, the extinction (or near-extinction) of species and the destruction of habitats seems to be evidence to the contrary. Further, the notion that continued exploitation of animal bodies somehow supports animal welfare initiatives is very troubling.

PS: Is the giraffe on the Body Worlds of Animals website blinking!?? How many different kinds of creepy is that? Compare this to the stoic-looking splash screen for the original Body Worlds, with its visual nod to the very serious business of science and technology. A dead, blinking giraffe? Really?!?

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1) Opened my email this morning to discover an ARTstor newsletter telling me that images from Cook’s voyages to the South Seas are now available through this wonderful image database. So cool!

2) Read about a very interesting-sounding photo exhibit in Toronto. Must go see this!

3) Found out about The Working Proof, an organization that sells art prints and helps charities. Love it!

4) Donkey Sanctuary! Need I say more?

Theatrum Mundi

My friend and colleague, Catherine Heard, has a new show at Rodman Hall. It is called Theatrum Mundi and it is very, very neat. She has essentially made a cabinet of curiosity in the gallery and it is jam-packed with all sorts of cool stuff. I was honoured that she asked me to write the accompanying essay (see below). Theatrum Mundi is up for a year, so be sure to check it out if you are in the area!

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Theatrum Mundi: A Cabinet of Curiosity

Catherine Heard’s artwork is as diverse as it is provocative. Heard, a Toronto-based artist, has produced a number of works over the course of her career that reference long-standing practices in the history of visual culture. For instance, her wax sculptures are suggestive of both religious votive pieces and of anatomical models of the human body, yet disrupt expectations of both.

Heard’s current installation at Rodman Hall, Theatrum Mundi (“theatre of the world”), is a site-specific project that revives the tradition of the wunderkammer (literally “cabinet of curiosity” or “cabinet of wonder”) – collections of extraordinary objects which were popular among the wealthy and the elite of Europe during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. The objects found inside a typical wunderkammer included everything from jewellery to natural history specimens and, while many scholars see the wunderkammer as the precursor to the modern museum, a true wunderkammer could be defined by its lack of strict curatorial practice. These were dynamic displays that changed according to the whim of the collector who would constantly be searching for something even more precious, even more spectacular and even more exotic to place within their wunderkammer.

The inspiration for this installation came from a “cabinet of curiosity” that Heard created for her own home out of a china cabinet she had inherited from her grandmother. The wunderkammer in Heard’s home includes examples of her own artwork as well as objects and art pieces she has collected. Likewise, the Theatrum Mundi installation at Rodman Hall is comprised of both found and created objects. Objects fashioned by Heard are tucked in amongst objects and ephemera that she has either purchased or has been given over the years. The pieces in this installation range from a crucifix made of matches to dolls made of human hair and from a death certificate bearing the artist’s name to hand-blown glass eyes. We, as viewers of Theatrum Mundi, are unable to tell which objects were made by Heard and which objects were collected by Heard; the boundaries between artist and collector are blurred in this exhibition.

Like the traditional wunderkammers of Renaissance Europe, Theatrum Mundi consists of objects of intrigue which raise questions about the world around us. Specifically, Heard’s fascination with the history of science and with the study of human anatomy is evident in this piece. The drawers and shelves of this installation are full of objects which address cultural conceptions of health, illness, beauty and the grotesque. For instance, in Theatrum Mundi precise anatomical drawings are displayed in close proximity to abstract-looking wax sculptures which are suggestive of internal human organs but are, in fact, entirely imaginative creations. The juxtaposition of “anatomical fact” with “anatomical fiction” casts suspicion on what we have come to believe as the truth about the human body.

Collectable photographic postcards of human bodies considered to be “freakish” because they deviated from socially accepted ideals about what the human body should look like in previous eras are an unforgettable feature of the Theatrum Mundi wunderkammer. The inclusion of this type of material draws attention to the shifting contexts of knowledge production – an image made as a “document” for medical history can simultaneously function as an object of entertainment. The perceived veracity of the photographic record shapes dominant understandings in both contexts. The question we are left with when viewing these images of disease, disfigurement and deformity relates back to the “curiosity” factor of the wunderkammer – are these images simply a “safe” and socially acceptable way of visually inspecting one who is “different”?

Themes of death and disaster also figure prominently in Heard’s installation. For instance, photographs of dead children, a once common and socially acceptable practice for grieving parents to engage in, both fascinate and disturb contemporary viewers. A particularly poignant example included in the Theatrum Mundi installation is a photograph in which a young girl holds the body of a dead younger sibling. This photograph was taken outdoors, and the young girl sits posed by the family car cradling her recently deceased brother. That contemporary viewers are startled by this image is a reminder of shifting cultural norms about death and dying. Stereoscopic slides of disaster (including the attacks that took place in the United States on September 11th, 2001) and View-Master reels on the subject of disease and human anatomy are two more examples of how Heard’s wunderkammer forces us to consider the ways in which practices of looking and technologies of vision necessarily shape cultural ideologies.

In the true spirit of a wunderkammer, the installation will change over the year. This will be a gradual and an organic change, and viewers returning to the exhibition over the coming months will no doubt delight in trying to discover what has been added and what has been removed since their last visit.

Back from a Blogging Hiatus

This has been a bit of a crazy summer — lots of goings on and life changes (nothing I feel like blogging about, but I am ok). In the midst of all of this I’ve been on a bit of an unintentional blog hiatus. I’ve missed blogging and catching up with friends via their blogs, so I’m looking forward to getting back into the blogosphere.

In addition to dealing with the above-mentioned “life stuff” this summer, I did manage to present a conference paper at the Science and the Public conference in Manchester. The conference was held at the Victoria Baths at the end of June. It was a really neat conference — very interesting venue and many wonderful papers over the two days. Below is one of the photos I took inside the building — there was so much character and history, a very interesting space to be in!

While in the UK I travelled down to London to do some research at the British Library (one of my favourite places on earth). I also popped into Kew Gardens a couple of times (another one of my favourite places on earth). I was especially excited to visit Kew this year as the new Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art is now open. The first exhibition held in this space (an exhibition calledTreasures of Botanical Art) is an exquisite show and well worth the wait. My only disappointment was that the Marianne North Gallery, which is physically linked to the new gallery, was closed for renovations. I absolutely understand the need for the renovations, but I think that being able to see both galleries at the same time would have been breath-taking. I guess I’ll just have to go back when the renovations are complete!

So, now we are nearing the halfway point of August and it is time, once again, to turn my thoughts to the new academic year. I feel I didn’t get nearly enough done this summer. I know that is the familiar refrain that all academics sing this time of year, but I felt that this was, quite possibly, the most unproductive summer I’ve had in my academic life. I’m not going to dwell on it and I know I can’t go back in time and change things, but the next few weeks are going to necessarily be super-duper busy as I attempt to get organized and get back on track. In some funny way I feel like returning to blogging is part of that process.

bloom!

A couple of weeks ago we took a trip down to Rochester to visit The George Eastman House. I was especially interested to see the exhibit called bloom!, which featured some of Edward Steichen’s experimental colour work. As the title of the exhibit suggests, the photos included in this show had a botanical focus, many an interesting blend of botanical art and photographic portraiture. It was a stunning exhibit, and I really wish there had been a catalogue accompanying it. When I go to an exhibition I like to take in the show, go away and think about it for a while, and then return to the images. If the exhibition is in a different city than the one I live in a return journey is often out of the question, and this is where I find a catalogue to be particularly useful. The pictures in this exhibit of Dana Steichen (Edward’s second wife, I believe) were especially beautiful, and there is one in particular that I keep thinking about — a very ethereal-looking portrait of Dana holding a brilliant red apple, which, of course, has symbolic connotations, but also an aesthetically stunning compositional choice given the greenish tones in the rest of the photograph. Simply gorgeous!

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Edward Steichen, Heavy Lillies (c.1935)
George Eastman House Collections

The other thing that really left an impression on me was seeing George Eastman’s suicide note. It had a hauntingly simple message: “Dear Friends, My work is done. Why wait?” It gave me shivers to see this written in his own handwriting.

Road Trip!

The closing keynote speaker for our Greenscapes conference was Richard Piacentini, the executive director of the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh. His talk was entitled “The Reverse Greenhouse Effect” and, using the structure of those great 19th century glass houses as a metaphor, Piacentini described the inspiration and efforts that went into the recent renovations at Phipps, renovations that resulted in a silver LEED award from the U.S. Green Building Council. Very cool!

Something else very cool that Richard Piacentini talked about that night was the exhibition of Dale Chihuly pieces at Phipps. I love Chihuly’s work, I love botanical gardens and conservatories, and I’m currently writing about the relationship between art and gardens, so when Laurie suggested we take a road trip down to Pittsburgh to see the show for ourselves I jumped at the opportunity. The installation was originally scheduled to come down in November, but it has been held over until February. If you are anywhere near the Pittsburgh area I highly recommend seeing this show. It is simply stunning! I’ve posted a few pics below, but the photographs don’t come anywhere close to doing it justice.

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