Monday, March 9, 2009

Expanding the topic

Our class was instructed to apply the Topoi technique (an Aristotelian invention) to our research topic, and see where it takes us. It seems to be a valuable technique for exploring deeper into a topic, and generating questions one otherwise might not have thought of. Here are the (sprawling, uncensored) results of my exercise, organized by topos.


The history of natural history museums: they started in the 16th century (Rennaisance) with wunderkammern ("wonder cabinets"), which were random collections of man-made and natural wonders used to demonstrate the glory of god and the diversity of his works, with no organization or discernment. With the Enlightenment, they became "curiosity cabinets" which were much more scientific, organized, principled, focused on discovering nature's principles and laws. In the 19th century Darwin explained evolution which revolutionized the scientific world and the natural history museums, and gave them their organizing principle and purpose which persists today in most modern natural history museums.

Sub-topics: history of science (natural science, evolution, taxonomy, taxidermy); relationship between science and culture, and how it changes over time, reflected in the kinds of museums; trends and changes in culture, and how these are reflected in museums and collections*; the nature of collecting and collections, why people collect, how collections are organized; modern, "meta" museums, weird museums, commentary on museums, museums that only exist as a concept like online museums, experiments

* I'm leaning towards this one as a paper topic


The idea of glorifying and revering nature by hunting, killing, stuffing, and displaying animals seems rather paradoxical.
The practice of natural history transitioned from a tribute to god, to a more atheistic, scientific study.
How do natural history museums compare with other kinds of museums, like art museums? What are the differences among natural history museums (some focus more on anthropology, some focus on animal collections; different underlying/organizing principles), and how to account for/explain these differences? What are the differences among museums in different cultures, historical periods, and nations?
What is the relationship between the traditional idea of a natural history museum and certain modern "museums" (like the Museum of Jurassic Technology) which are more a reflection of or commentary upon traditional museums?


What is the value of natural history museums, anyway? Why do they even exist?
Museums convey certain moral attitudes or messages. How do these messages change over time and place? The original wunderkammern said, "God is really great, look at all the cool stuff he's made!", while most modern museums focus on human's impact on the environment (especially loss of biodiversity, but more and more about climate change as well). After Darwin, museums mostly focused on teaching evolution to the public (although at this point it's so ingrained that museums don't feel the need to do that much anymore).
What value does a museum impart to society, or its country/region?
How much do museums cost, and is it worth it? How are they funded?
What kind of spiritual enrichment might be gained from visiting these museums?


What are the changes in society which influence changes in museums and/or collections?
What scientific advances have been made since the Middle Ages, and how do they influence museums?
What are some of the impetuses for creating collections?
How did the first versions of natural history museums arise, and why?
What effects do museums have on different audiences, and vice versa?


The obvious question, how have natural history museums have changed over time; physically, and in concept?
How have they been changing recently/in modern times, and how will they continue to change? (I could look at the effects of technology, the increasing importance placed on climate change and environmental issues, or issues of funding.)
The controversy over "edutainment", or the role of education and entertainment in museums; should entertainment play a role at all?

Considering the paper will be quite short, I am realizing that I need to narrow my focus. Right now I feel like I'm looking at ALL museums in ALL cultures over the entire history of museums (and before). I might even need to narrow it down to just one particular museum or collection, and look at what it says about the science and culture of its time/place. I'm really interested in what seems to be a current trend of meta-museums. Not even museums, though; postmodern reflections of museums and natural history. (I'm thinking Museum of Jurassic Technology, as a real life example, or all the natural history- and museum-related blogs I've found.) What do these say about our culture, about science, and about the evolution of natural history?

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Fascinating! Completely fascinating! I'm fairly new to your focus of study but it's certainly hooked me already.
    Can I ask two questions? These just popped into my head as I read your posts and maybe they're something you've already wondered about yourself!
    Firstly, the time and place in history of the wunderkammern, was certainly completely suffused with organised religion. Look at the influence of the Church on Italian and French art of the period for example, but here's my first question. Is this "demonstrating the glory of god" theme really so certain? I like the way you've shown the move from wonder in order to glorify god to rationalised classification and control as some cabinets of curiosities became like our modern natural history museums. But I think the phenomenon of wonderment (the French word "emerveillement" captures it better for me) is a core human characteristic, and I'm just curious about whether or not these early "cabinets" all about glorifying god or about this more basic human quality? Am I making sense here?
    The second thing that popped into my mind was about the relationship between natural history museums and the great nature programmes on TV these days. Interesting that you highlight one of David Attenborough's books - the one about illustrations. What's the relationship between Attenborough's film work and natural history museums?
    Anyway, thanks for coming along and commenting on my blog, following your trail to here has been "wonderFULL"!

    Dr Bob