University of California Santa Cruz The First Jewish American Exhibition Question


An analysis of a museum exhibition explaining how the exhibition makes a visual, spatial and ideological argument. Analyze an entire exhibition, with a close reading of a specific display. For example, if there is an exhibit of 19th century French photography, describe the exhibit overall, and then zero in on one room or one wall to do a close reading of the labels, the lighting, the hang of works, juxtapositions, etc. Questions to address when writing the paper:What is the goal, in your opinion, of the display you are writing about? What kind of attitude is it hoping to inspire in its audience? In other words, who is saying what to whom, how and why? Does it have a political message, does it support a particular episteme? Does it have other ideological goals?Which four articles we have read this term can help support your argument? How do their ideas help you to ask questions or read the exhibition more carefully? How does the architecture of the museum influence the perception of the display?What is the lighting like? What kind of value does the lighting bring to the object(s) displayed? Who are the curators? How are they identified?What kinds of labels are present, what kind of information do they give, and where are they positioned? How is the viewer expected to behave? How is the funding of the exhibit/institution made evident? What are the power relations created within the space? How can some of the following terms be applied to the exhibit or to the objects in the exhibit: art, artifact, evidence, narrative illustration, self-evident, beautiful, metaphoric, metonymic, “in situ”, “in context”, synchronic, diachronic, teleological, authoritative, self-reflective, multi-vocal, ethnographic, historical, nationalistic, biographical, rare, culturally specific, episteme, icon, index, symbol, provenance, etc.Requirements:TEXT: 1000 words, typed, double-spaced, with footnotes. Please reference at least four assigned essays in your analysis. Footnotes citations required for each page and works cited page.IMAGE: One or two additional pages with a visual representation of the display.Link to Virtual Musuem:….

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Analyzing the National Museum of African American History and Culture | The New Yorker
American Chronicles August 29, 2016 Issue
Making a Home for Black History
The vision and the challenges behind a new museum on the National Mall.
By Vinson Cunningham
The building’s design alludes to Yoruba art, from West Africa, and to the ligree ironwork made by American
Illustration by Vincent Mahé
few years ago, Rex Ellis, the associate director of curatorial affairs for the National
Museum of African American History and Culture, which will open in
September on the Mall in Washington, D.C., made a phone call. Ellis is a natural
storyteller, with a voice that mixes congestion and control in a manner reminiscent of
Jesse Jackson’s. He’d clearly told the story of the call before, but when I spoke with him
this past spring, in his office on an upper floor of the glassy Capital Gallery Building,
on Maryland Avenue, he repeated it for me with all the shock and wonder that it
“A phone call,” he began. “To a young lady by the name of Wendy Porter.” She had e
Analyzing the National Museum of African American History and Culture | The New Yorker
“A phone call,” he began. “To a young lady by the name of Wendy Porter.” She had emailed him, saying that she had Nat Turner’s Bible. Ellis smirked slightly and rolled his
eyes. “Well, there are a lot of folk who call and make all kinds of claims. So I said,
‘Mmm-hmm.’ But then she told a little bit about her history, and she mentioned
Nathaniel Francis. And I said”—deeper this time, slower—“ ‘Mmm-hmmmm.’ ”
Nathaniel Francis owned the property on which Nat Turner was captured, in October,
1831. There, on Francis’s land, the slave preacher hid, having led a revolt of fellowslaves that drew its inspiration from the Bible in question and ended in the deaths of at
least fifty-five white residents of Southampton County, Virginia. Turner was tried and
hanged in the nearby town of Jerusalem. It is not clear to Ellis or to his staff just how
Francis came to have Turner’s Bible; later, by searching through library documents and
photographs, they learned that his family had held on to it until at least 1900. As if to
complete the circle of haunted serendipity, Wendy Porter’s stepfather was related to one
of Nathaniel’s descendants, Rick Francis, a prominent member of the Southampton
County Historical Society, which owns the sword that Nat Turner had with him when
he was captured.
“So,” Ellis said, tracing ecstatic connections on his desk with his fingers, “everything
just started to fit together.” He travelled to Virginia Beach to see the Bible. Porter, who
was seven or eight months pregnant, greeted him at the door of her home and
introduced him to her mother, who took him to the dining room. Porter’s mother went
into a closet and pulled down an object wrapped in a thinning dishtowel. She placed it
on a table in front of Ellis. Sitting in Washington, Ellis pantomimed the gesture,
sliding an invisible book across his desk, to me.
When Ellis unwrapped the Bible at the Porters’, the binding was long gone. What he
saw was its first yellowed page, the edges rounded by much use. He turned a few pages,
gingerly, then stopped. He looked at the mother. “We only bring it out during family
reunions,” she said. “And only when someone asks do we bring it out so that they can
see it. Then we wrap it up and put it back in the closet.”
She looked at the Bible. “We thought that this was something—we knew it was
important,” she said. “Yes, Ma’am,” Ellis replied. Then she spoke again, as if urged, Ellis
said, by some outside force. “It was time for it to leave here,” she told him. Ellis looked
Analyzing the National Museum of African American History and Culture | The New Yorker
said, by some outside force. “It was time for it to leave here,” she told him. Ellis looked
me in the eyes when he repeated what she said next: “Because there’s so much blood on
n the introduction to “America’s Black Past,” an anthology published in 1970, the
historian Eric Foner wrote that, among this country’s “myths and misconceptions,
one of the most pervasive and pernicious . . . is the picture of blacks as inactive agents
in history.” An active history, like the one that lay behind Nat Turner’s bloody Bible—
full of inscrutable decisions and odd happenings, shaped but not determined by
suffering—often stays hidden. The Bible will soon go on display at the new museum on
the Mall, our latest opportunity to bring such a history into the light.
The museum’s mouthful of a name—and its inelegant initialism, N.M.A.A.H.C.—
testifies to a bureaucratic slog that began in 1915, when black veterans of the Union
Army, together in Washington to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the war’s end, and
fed up with the discrimination they found in the capital city, organized a “colored
citizens’ committee” to build a monument to the civic contributions of their recently
emancipated people. In 1929, Herbert Hoover appointed a commission, which
included the civil-rights leader and educator Mary McLeod Bethune and the
N.A.A.C.P. co-founder Mary Church Terrell, to come up with a plan. Unfunded and
largely ignored, the commission languished, and was eventually dissolved by Franklin
D. Roosevelt. The effort began again in the nineteen-seventies, with several abortive
attempts at legislation and much controversy within the Smithsonian Institution, under
whose aegis each national museum is administered. Finally, in 2003, George W. Bush
signed the National Museum of African American History and Culture Act, which had
been sponsored in the Senate by Sam Brownback and in the House by John Lewis, the
project’s most consistent contemporary champion.
In 2005, Lonnie Bunch was hired to be the museum’s founding director. Bunch, now
sixty-three, previously served as the associate director for curatorial affairs at the
National Museum of American History, and then spent five years as the president of
the Chicago Historical Society. We spoke this past April, on a muggy day in
Washington, in his office at the Capital Gallery Building. He told me the story of how,
after being hired by the N.M.A.A.H.C., which had “no collection, no money, no staff,
Analyzing the National Museum of African American History and Culture | The New Yorker
after being hired by the N.M.A.A.H.C., which had “no collection, no money, no staff,
no site,” he was greeted at an earlier set of offices, at L’Enfant Plaza.
“I go over there—door’s locked,” he said. “So I go to security and say to the guard, you
know, ‘I’m the director of this new museum.’ He says, ‘We don’t know who you are—
you can’t get in.’ So I go to the manager’s office: he won’t let me in. I call back to the
Smithsonian and say, ‘What’s going on here?’ They say, ‘We don’t know.’ So I’m
standing in front of the door, really ticked off, thinking, Why’d I take this job? But then
this maintenance guy walks by, and in his cart he’s got a crowbar. So I take the crowbar
and break into the offices.”
I may have looked skeptical. “Nobody was ready for us,” he insisted. “I had to break in.”
The difficulty of the past decade’s work is a theme with Bunch—he says he plans to
publish a book about the experience, called “A Fool’s Errand”—and this story was
perhaps offered as an allegory, both for the tortuous process of opening a national
museum and for the history of black people in America. Or, at least, one version of that
history: first a promise; then a series of closed doors; then despair; then, at last, access
by way of force instead of grace. “I’m a kid born in Newark,” Bunch said, arching an
eyebrow, “so I know how to fight.”
That pugilist’s impulse, along with an intimate understanding of the politics and the
pace of the Smithsonian, has, from the beginning, informed Bunch’s approach to the
technical and diplomatic aspects of his directorship. When he was deciding whether to
leave his job in Chicago, he spoke with Richard M. Daley, the city’s former mayor.
Daley, characteristically blunt, asked, “Why would you leave to run a project?” The
question stayed with Bunch, and led him to conclude that, even without a physical
space of its own, the museum must exist, not aspirationally but in fact, starting soon
after his appointment.
Rather than focussing solely on fund-raising and acquisitions, Bunch pulled Robert
Moses’s old trick: quickly driving stakes into the ground. He commissioned a series of
books, online displays, and travelling exhibitions, including one that opened last year, in
a gallery on the second floor of the National Museum of American History, called
“Through the African American Lens.” The eclectic show serves as a preview of the
museum to come; among the objects on display are a sword and a canvas tent used by
Analyzing the National Museum of African American History and Culture | The New Yorker
museum to come; among the objects on display are a sword and a canvas tent used by
the Union soldier George Thompson Garrison; a desk from the Hope Rosenwald
School for rural black children, dating from the beginning of the twentieth century;
and a set of colorful costumes from the original Broadway production of “The Wiz.”
The museum did not own a single artifact when Bunch began, so he instituted a
program called Saving African American Treasures, a take on the PBS favorite
“Antiques Roadshow.” Professional conservationists specializing in paper, textiles, and
other delicate materials travelled around the country, helping interested amateurs to, as
he put it, “preserve Grandma’s old shawl, or that wonderful photograph.” Bunch’s hope
was that the tour would inspire a certain generosity of spirit, as well as some “buzz”
about the museum’s ambitions. It did. Bunch’s curators have now collected more than
thirty-five thousand objects, most of them donations. They range from a chillingly
anonymous pair of rusted slave shackles to a frilled shawl of lace and linen given to
Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria; from an advertisement for a Memphis slave
market that featured a “general assortment of Negroes” to a pocket watch owned by the
abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison; from Muhammad Ali’s headgear to James
Baldwin’s passport, crowded with stamps. One room in the museum will contain the
coffin of Emmett Till.
The collection’s dependence on viscerally affecting items reflects the Smithsonian’s
tendency toward a broad, largely artifact-based history—Here’s somebody’s Buick!
Here’s something Walt Whitman once touched!—meant to induce gooseflesh, or
thoughtful moans. Its curators know how impatient tourists and students can be.
Eleven of the Smithsonian’s twenty enormously popular museums are situated on the
Mall, and the lawn is perpetually bright with camera flashes and school-group T-shirts.
“People are gonna give you two hours per museum,” Bunch told me with a shrug.
But artifacts cannot speak for themselves; the meaning of a museum is determined by
acts of interpretation. It’s natural to see the museum’s opening as part of a continuum
that began in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, with the advent of black-studies
programs, or even earlier, with the work of Carter G. Woodson, an author and scholar
who was the son of slaves—in other words, as part of the history of black history.
Bunch, however, rejects this idea. “What I argue is: This is not a black museum. This is
a museum that uses one culture to understand what it means to be an American. That,
Analyzing the National Museum of African American History and Culture | The New Yorker
a museum that uses one culture to understand what it means to be an American. That,
to my mind, is the cutting edge.”
He spoke in terms like this throughout our conversation, with an unrelenting
deliberateness, as if from a page of talking points. “This is a story that is too big to be in
the hands of one community,” he said at one point, describing the story that is
America. And then, speaking of the sojourn of black people in this country: “This is, in
some ways, the quintessential American story.” And, later, contrasting the efforts of his
staff with other, more possessive ethnic histories: “Instead of simply saying, ‘This is our
story, period,’ we want to say, ‘This is everybody’s story.’ ”
Bunch’s framing of black experience, as a lens through which one may better see some
static American text, sidesteps more than a century of scuffles over the nature, and the
meaning, of that experience. Between the accommodationism of Booker T. Washington
and the activism of W. E. B. Du Bois, the romance of Zora Neale Hurston and the
social realism of Richard Wright, the defiance of the Black Lives Matter movement
and the caution of “respectability politics,” there has always been something along these
lines: go along or fight back, persuade or condemn, love or leave, use a common
language or create one of your own.
Bunch may be a fighter, but he seems eager to avoid such a clash—the cost, perhaps, of
doing business with Congress, on whom so much concerning the museum depends.
(More than half of the funds for the building have come from the federal government;
the balance has been provided by a star-studded group of private donors, including
Michael Jordan, the television producer Shonda Rhimes, and Oprah Winfrey, whose
contribution of more than twenty million dollars is commemorated by the museum’s
Oprah Winfrey Theatre.) Bunch told me about a meeting he had with Jim Moran, a
former U.S. congressman from Virginia, who initially opposed the museum: “He says,
‘O.K., Lonnie, I don’t wanna be rude, but I don’t think there should be a black museum
just for black people.’ And I said, ‘Neither do I.’ Blew him out of the water.”
With benefactors like these, there may have been little incentive to engage more
directly with the most heated debates about black identity and culture, or to empower
the scholars best known for leading, and reflecting upon, those exchanges. Seven years
ago, one such scholar, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was arrested by a white police officer
Analyzing the National Museum of African American History and Culture | The New Yorker
ago, one such scholar, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was arrested by a white police officer
while trying to gain entrance to his own home, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This led
to the now infamous “Beer Summit” with Gates, President Obama, and the arresting
officer. Gates later offered the museum the handcuffs used to detain him. Bunch
initially declined the gift, before reversing himself.
“We listened to all the best scholars, even if we didn’t always end up doing what they
thought we should,” Bunch told me. Eric Foner has offered his expertise to Bunch and
his team throughout the planning process. “They’ve made a very big effort to engage
scholars, at all points of planning,” Foner said. “This museum cannot satisfy everybody
—I don’t suppose any museum can—and I think the more Lonnie can point to input
by current scholars, well-known scholars, this will help to deflect whatever criticism
might be coming their way.”
Perhaps Bunch hopes that the mere location of the museum will, in its way, speak more
freely. The symbolic axis of the Mall has always been a source of silent but tangible
power, particularly with respect to the history of black Americans, beginning with the
slave pens that once dotted the land and culminating, perhaps, in the subtle stage
design of the March on Washington. “The Mall is America’s front yard,” Bunch said,
when I asked him about the importance of the real estate, “but it is also, in some ways,
the place where more people come to understand what it means to be an American
than anyplace else in the country.” His familiarity with the Mall, and its conventions,
led to one of the museum’s most striking features. “I wanted a darker building,” he said.
“I didn’t want the white marble building that traditionally was the Mall. What I
wanted to say was, there’s always been a dark presence in America that people
undervalue, neglect, overlook. I wanted this building to say that.” Then, as if to balance
out this quick foray into confrontational talk, he added, “I also wanted a building that
spoke of resiliency and uplift.”
he museum stands on the last available plot on the Mall, just east of the
Washington Monument, finished but not yet full. Designed by the GhanaianBritish architect David Adjaye, the building is a glass cube, sheathed in three broad,
overlapping aluminum bands coated with bronze. Adjaye and his partner, Philip
Freelon, call this outer cladding a “corona,” a reference to the beaded crowns
characteristic of Yoruba art, from West Africa. The corona is decorated with a kind of
Analyzing the National Museum of African American History and Culture | The New Yorker
characteristic of Yoruba art, from West Africa. The corona is decorated with a kind of
lattice, a stylized version of the filigree ironwork made by slaves in New Orleans and
South Carolina, giving the museum the look of a temple devoted to a vaguely
benevolent god. The aluminum bands open as they ascend; trace their angles upward,
and they might be arms raised in joy. Follow them downward, and you see the tips of
arrows, pointing toward a burial ground, or to a thick knot of invisible roots. The Mall
is one of the most tightly regulated spaces in the country, and Adjaye was barred from
building any higher; an extra story would have obstructed the sweeping east-west sight
line from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. More than half the building is
For pedestrians on the Mall, the museum is hard to see from more than a few dozen
yards away, especially during the spring and summer—the Mall’s famous row of
American elms is particularly thick on the plot where the building stands. It is set back
from the street, on the other side of a neat, rectangular lawn; up from the grass pokes
the top of a glass-enclosed circular fountain, called the Oculus, which allows sunlight
into the museum’s Contemplative Court, belowground, where visitors can pause to
consider the treasures—and, if necessary, recover from the traumas—experienced so far.
Over the building’s shoulder looms the Washington Monument, its red eye blinking
down as if from the height of the nation’s founding.
Adjaye’s structure is the latest installment in the Mall’s meandering passage through
trends in public art. The original design for the area, by Pierre L’Enfant, D.C.’s great
planner-auteur, called for a shaggy informality. In his 1791 report to George
Washington, L’Enfant imagined a lively promenade flanked not by museums and
bureaucratic offices but by sites offering “diversion to the idle”—theatres, assembly
halls, and public academies. This vision was never realized: financial strain and political
gridlock stalled construction almost completely during the nineteenth century.
In 1902, the Senate Park Commission, in a report titled “The Improvement of the Park
System of the District of Columbia,” reimagined the Mall. The architects and artists on
the commission, stirred by America’s emergence as an imperial power, designed the
space according to the neoclassical principles of the so-called American Renaissance.
That visual style defines the Mall’s most iconic structures: the Washington Monument
and the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. Soon, however, a younger generation,
Analyzing the National Museum of African American History and Culture | The New Yorker
and the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. Soon, however, a younger generation,
influenced by the blossoming of modernism and by the shattered idealism brought on
by two world wars, crashed awkwardly into the frame. Their work reached a nadir in
the nineteen-seventies, with the brutalism of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture
Garden and the chunky Air and Space Museum. If the grand planners of the Mall were
slightly grandiose, the late-century modernists zagged too far toward a tacky, posthuman future.
Adjaye’s building might be the most successful modernist design on the Mall so far.
This is partly because of its unashamed approach to symbolism. Touches like the
corona’s outer lattice serve as a reminder of the human work that has gone into the
making of America.
hree stories beneath the building’s airy upper views, on the museum’s bottom
level, is an exhibit called “Slavery and Freedom.” Quotations from famous
freedom-oriented national texts, presented chronologically—the Declaration of
Independence, Absalom Jones’s Thanksgiving sermon of 1808, a stanza from the
spiritual “Steal Away to Jesus”—are carved into a vast, unbroken, slate-gray wall. The
objects in the exhibit include a tin wallet containing neatly folded freedom papers, a
slave identification button stamped “PORTER,” and a Union Army recruitment poster
from 1863, featuring Frederick Douglass’s rallying cry, “Men of Color, to Arms!” The
chronological presentation and the tension between the relics and the promissory texts
leave an impression of inevitability: the terrors of the slave trade giving way, gradually,
to emancipation, hidden, from the beginning, somewhere deep within the national
Slavery and freedom have, in America, always been intertwined, spinning toward and
away from each other in a kind of ontological dance. But the museum’s hand-in-hand
treatment of the concepts conveys an implicit promise to museumgoers of the uplift to
come. This assurance is reiterated by the design of the “history galleries,” which, under
one high ceiling, occupy the entire lower section of the museum. A series of wide,
gently sloped ramps lift a visitor ever farther, in time and in elevation, from slavery—
the title of Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, “Up from Slavery,” made literal, and
almost eschatological. Above, like a promise flown in from the future, hangs a yellowand-blue training plane operated during the Second World War by the Tuskegee
Analyzing the National Museum of African American History and Culture | The New Yorker
and-blue training plane operated during the Second World War by the Tuskegee
Airmen, the first black American military pilots.
Slavery might be better presented without the escape hatch of freer air above. After all,
this is how it was experienced: not as a step on the path to somewhere else but as a
cruel normalcy, a permanent condition, the life that one’s ancestors had lived, and that
one’s children would surely live, too. The Holocaust Memorial Museum, across the
Mall, offers a sober acknowledgment: for millions, this was a lifetime—an entire edifice,
not simply a floor. “In Washington, D.C., there is no museum of American slavery,”
Foner noted, when we spoke. He added, “We have a museum of the Holocaust in
Washington, which is a great museum, but, you know, what would we think if the
Germans put up a big museum of American slavery in Berlin and didn’t have anything
about the Holocaust?”
At the point on the wall’s time line that marks emancipation, there stands a one-room
slave cabin, made of whitewashed yellow pine in tidy slats. The cabin was dismantled
where it stood originally, on the Point of Pines plantation, on Edisto Island, South
Carolina, and reconstructed here. The roof looks flimsy; the simple brick fireplace
reaches almost to the ceiling. The floor is clean and smooth. Something happens there,
standing where others lived and likely died: the years ahead disappear. The quotidian
catalogue that springs to mind—cooking, cleaning, sex, song—gives way to an
awareness that such normalcy could exist, was made to exist, amid such evil. You look
askance at that word, “home.”
Outside the cabin, the time line reasserts itself, and the ramps speed history up, leading
visitors to an exhibition called “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom,” which
presents the era of de-jure and de-facto segregation and is anchored by a gleaming
green Jim Crow-era railway car. Soon, close to ground level, “A Changing America”
takes us from the chaos of 1968 to the election of Barack Obama and the blood-fuelled
rise of Black Lives Matter. Here you are surrounded by panels designed to look like
picket signs, bedecked with quick-hit blurbs on “The Aftermath of King’s
Assassination” and “Feminist Writing,” the Black Panthers and Black Power.
There is an irony in this approach: the leaders of these movements did not merely
Analyzing the National Museum of African American History and Culture | The New Yorker
There is an irony in this approach: the leaders of these movements did not merely
assemble a mountain of facts about life in America; they drew from those facts a world
view. They offered interpretations of those facts, thus risking, even inviting, controversy
and dissent. The new museum’s one heavy-handed assertion—the fact of black
advancement—is indisputable. But it makes no comment on which means, and which
strategies, have secured this progress, or how it might be sustained and enlarged. The
exhibits make a thorough sweep through the centuries; no one will leave without scores
of wide-eyed did-you-know’s to share. But by refusing to submit its wares to the
refiner’s fire of exegesis, or to make of the many ideas represented within its walls some
new idea, useful for the future, the museum reduces history to a scattering of bright but
unconstellated stars.
here is a feeling of relief when you reach the upper floors, where the “culture
galleries” are housed, and where even Smithsonian-friendly artifacts begin to
gather coherence. These items speak not with the wrenching power of the Point of
Pines cabin but with a kind of roving intelligence, enabled by the symbolic wit of art.
Take, for example, the MIDI Production Center, or MPC, owned by the late producer
J. Dilla. The MPC, a tool for recording, mixing, and creating something new from
found materials, evokes the process by which art can confound the course of events, not
simply reflect or react to it.
The triumph of the building’s interior is the gallery for fine art, which occupies the
museum’s fourth and most impressive floor. From a wide window, facing west, you can
see from the White House, in the north, to the Ellipse, to the Washington Monument
and the Jefferson Memorial, with the Lincoln Memorial just visible in the distance.
When I visited, the art was not yet placed, but the collection, which the chief curator,
Jacqueline Serwer, along with the curator Tuliza Fleming and the museum’s deputy
director, Kinshasha Holman Conwill, acquired mostly from private donors, is a genuine
treasure—and a reminder of art’s power to illuminate history’s murkier passages. “There
wasn’t a place in the Smithsonian where you could go from Robert Duncanson to
Carrie Mae Weems,” Bunch told me, describing the museum’s goal in bringing
together black artists from America’s past and its present. “I wanted us to be that
place.” Duncanson’s stately “The Garden of Eden,” painted thirteen years before
emancipation, depicts a paradise, leafy and mountainous but also unsettlingly dark. The
figures of Adam and Eve are distant and barely distinguishable from the wilderness
Analyzing the National Museum of African American History and Culture | The New Yorker
figures of Adam and Eve are distant and barely distinguishable from the wilderness
beyond them. The painting conveys a post-Fall America, tinged with menace, in which
sin and grace manage a dissonant coexistence. David Driskell’s brown-toned canvas
“Behold Thy Son,” a work of anguished expressionism, was painted in 1956, a year after
the lynching of Emmett Till. It depicts a body with a mangled face and outstretched
arms, which could be Christ drooping from the Cross or Till at his funeral, where his
mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted on an open casket.
The museum’s greatest example of the synthesis of art and history, beauty and tragedy,
might be “April 4,” a work from 1969, by the abstractionist painter Sam Gilliam, in
which the artist memorialized Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s assassination. The canvas,
smudged with purple, conveys an uneasy mood, but its key feature is a wild splattering
of red. The suggestion of blood says much of what can be said about King’s killing, or,
for that matter, anyone’s: that it is senseless, that it is blank fact, that no word could ever
rise to its finality.
The museum’s history galleries may, over time, find a way to communicate the power of
events with a similar force—to achieve a kind of lift, away from the time line and into
deeper places. Of course, as a public institution, it belongs to a nation still nervous
about its meaning, and it depends, financially, on a Congress hardly interested in
original thought along racial lines. It exists, massively, in three-dimensional space, not
on the page or on canvas.
And the contemporary Mall, despite the loftiness of its monuments, is one of the
country’s great populist locales. The scene on a warm day—Frisbees floating,
sunbathers dozing, those endless busloads of schoolkids—is a vindication of L’Enfant’s
original, bustling idea, a happy echo of America’s largeness and its stubborn
eccentricity. Seen this way, the appearance of the N.M.A.A.H.C. as a site of pilgrimage
—and, more mutely, as a dark presence at a distinguished address—will not fail to do
some good. Better that the children go home rattling off facts, however loosely grasped,
about Jim Crow and James Brown than not. Still, for the new museum to become
worthy of its expressive building, and to join the ranks of institutions that have helped
us to better understand ourselves, it will need to borrow the tactics of art: a long and
steady gaze, a bravery uncommon in bureaucracy, and a conception of experience not as
a lens but as something that we must continue, indefinitely, to excavate—interpreting as
Analyzing the National Museum of African American History and Culture | The New Yorker
a lens but as something that we must continue, indefinitely, to excavate—interpreting as
we dig. ♦
This article appears in other versions of the August 29, 2016, issue, with the headline “A
Darker Presence.”
Vinson Cunningham joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2016. Read more »
Telling the Story of Slavery
The Whitney Plantation is the rst museum dedicated to telling the story of slavery in America.
Readings for Carceral Conditions: Guest lecture
1. Introduction:
2. Histories and Structure:
Hope (2017), blue whale skeleton displayed in Hintze Hall, Natural History Museum, London. Photo:
courtesy of the author.
jcs 9 (2) pp. 206–229 Intellect Limited 2020
Journal of Curatorial Studies
Volume 9 Number 2
© 2020 Intellect Ltd Article. English language.
Received 31 December 2019; Accepted 12 August 2020
Loughborough University London
Hope in the Archive: Indexing the
Natural History Museum’s Ecologies
of Display
In 2017, a 25-metre-long blue whale skeleton was installed in the Central Hall of
the Natural History Museum, London. ‘Hope’ became a symbol of the urgency of
marine conservation, and of institutional relevance in the face of ecological devastation. However, the whale is but the latest in a series of dramatic installations of
formidable specimens since the museum first opened in 1881. Originally intended
as an encyclopaedia of nature, or ‘Index Museum’, the Central Hall’s history
charts the intersection of exhibitionary aura and concepts of ecology. This article
argues that the original Victorian framework, both institutional and ideological,
continues to shape the museum’s ecological aesthetics, and therefore requires selfcritical reassessment to be truly transformative.
animal displays
curating and natural
exhibitions and
index museum
Natural History
Museum, London
A sea-change took place in the Natural History Museum, London on 14
July 2017. Amidst a storm of controversy, ‘Dippy’ the Diplodocus skeleton cast
was removed from its pride of place in the Museum’s Central Hall, where it
had resided for nearly 40 years. In its place, the 25-metre-long skeleton of
a blue whale was unveiled. Well, not exactly in its place: while the dinosaur
had occupied a large part of the grand hall’s floor, the whale was suspended
from the ceiling in a dramatic diving pose. Although many objected to
the removal of the Diplodocus, which had become a veritable icon of the  207
Pandora Syperek
1. An online petition
was mounted against
the removal of the
dinosaur (see Metro UK
2. It is now called the
Mammals Gallery.
3. The donor was
businessman and
philanthropist Sir
Michael Hintze.
museum,1 the installation of the blue whale marked a new phase of oceansthemed programming that featured an ecological message concerning the
conservation of species, the blue whale having been rescued from impending human-induced extinction following collective international efforts in the
late twentieth century. Upon its unveiling, the museum christened the whale
skeleton ‘Hope’.
Hope, however, was not entirely new to the museum. The skeleton was
originally purchased in 1891, following the young female whale’s beaching in
Wexford, Ireland. It was then only installed in 1934, after the ‘large shed’ that
had been temporarily erected in 1898 for the display of whales was finally
replaced with a new permanent Whale Hall (Regan 1931a: x; Stearn 1981: pl.
40),2 where it remained until its twenty-first-century rebranding. The reasons
behind the contentious replacement of Dippy were manifold and far from
straightforward. The reinstallation of the Central Hall, renamed ‘Hintze Hall’
after a donor,3 encompassed a combination of strategic planning and practical considerations, including visitor flow, conservation and cleaning, as well
as the demand for natural history museums’ contemporary relevance (Lowe
et al. 2020). Hope is italicized throughout this article to reflect the specimen’s
status as a constructed and titled museum object, and to challenge its neutrality imposed by ‘natural’, scientific and anthropomorphic narratives.
The blue whale is set against the Neo-Romanesque architecture of the
Natural History Museum – designed by the architect Alfred Waterhouse
(1830–1905) and opened to the public in 1881 – including its ornate sculptural programme, colourful stained glass, crude mosaic floors and botanically
illustrated Arts and Crafts ceiling frescoes. Hope is equally set against the intellectual history of a museum founded under a religious regime that upheld a
taxonomic relationship to the natural world, holding it at arm’s length from the
human – or at least, from white European man (Syperek 2015: 69). Alongside
this specific architectural and ideological backdrop looms the framework of
the museum project itself, as an imperial invention to collect and catalogue the
world according to post-Enlightenment conventions of knowledge formation.
Critical investigations of natural history museums have been a belated
development of the ‘new museology’ (Vergo 1989), with museums of art and
ethnography assuming priority. However, as the ecological crisis becomes ever
more urgent, the institution explicitly devoted to collecting and displaying the
nonhuman increasingly calls for interrogation, especially given that its timeline coincides with other societal developments leading directly to climate
catastrophe – namely, industrialization and capitalism. And yet, scholarship on
the contemporary place of natural history museums has frequently engaged
in a reflective and progressive logic. In a relatively early study of the topic,
museums and heritage scholar Peter Davis asserts these museums’ increasing enlightenment since their Victorian foundations: ‘Natural history museums have been at the forefront of change since the early twentieth century, as
they have gradually shaken off the shackles that the technology, attitudes and
objectives that their nineteenth-century predecessors had imposed on them’
(1996: 1). In this article, I challenge this teleological vision of the museum by
investigating what new ideologies have replaced the old ones, and which of
the old have remained in a new guise. The trope that natural history museums
have ‘evolved’ to reflect humans’ improved understanding of nature upholds
a modern imperialist notion of scientific progress, while naturalizing subject–
object relations of nature and representation. This is especially notable as it
208  Journal of Curatorial Studies
Hope in the Archive
Blue whale skeleton (1934), installation view in the Whale Hall, Natural History Museum. Photo: courtesy
of and © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.
is the modern ideal of progress that has historically relegated the category of
nature to antimodern other (Tsing 2015: 5).
I argue that the change necessary for museums to have significant ecological impact is more profound than embracing a conservation ethic like Davis
(1996: 43) recommends, and rather requires a reassessment of the museum
itself and its mechanisms of (self)representation. As the literary theorists
Nathan K. Hensley and Philip Steer remark of ecocriticism, ‘The challenge is
not about content but about form’ (2019: 4). But while ecocritical methods
are well established in literature and the broader environmental humanities,
consideration of the poetics of ecology is much less developed within curatorial studies and museology. The Victorians arguably invented both ecology and
the museum; as these constructs are fraught with the ideological baggage of
their shared origins, and can be seen as mutually affirming in their imagining of the natural world and humanity’s place within, it would be tautological
to accept one as the rationale for the other. The concepts ‘natural history’ and
‘museum’ need to be interrogated in conjunction: ecological histories suffuse
the museum space, just as the museum’s ordering of knowledge impresses on
contemporary understandings of ecology.
Although the recent Hintze Hall project attempts to convey a contemporary ecological message about biodiversity and sustainability (Natural History  209
Pandora Syperek
4. My thanks go to Sarah
Wade for pointing out
this connection.
Museum 2015), one thing is missing from the displays: the history of the
museum itself. If, as the historian of science Jean-Paul Deléage writes, ecology
is ‘a self-aware science’ (1992: 44), and the Anthropocene is the first geological
epoch whose agents are conscious of their own impact, then it follows that if
a museum is going to effectively address these issues it must do so in a selfcritical way: one that accounts for how the modern idea of ‘nature’ is bound to
its subjugation, and how this historical concept is foundational to the institution itself. In other words, the museum after nature must acknowledge itself
as a museum object. Art historians Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius and Piotr
Piotrowski ask, ‘[C]ould the museum absorb and benefit from its critique, turning into a critical museum, into the site of resistance rather than ritual?’ (2015:
2). While their focus is the art museum, this question is equally relevant – and
urgent – to the museum of natural history. In what follows, I will consider
the implications of this question through an examination of the Hintze Hall’s
revived Victorian blue whale specimen in relation to its surroundings and their
changing ecologies of display.
Return to the Index
Although the publicity surrounding the Hintze Hall redevelopment focused
on the installation of the blue whale, an equal if subtler transformation took
place in the central space’s ten radiating alcoves, which mimic the side-aisle
bays of a Romanesque church and were newly titled the ‘Wonder Bays’. Many
of these present oceanic life and most reference contemporary ecological
concerns. Moving clockwise, in the first bay of the west side of the hall, a
giraffe skeleton stands side-by-side a taxidermy specimen of a different giraffe
species, demonstrating the diversity within the genus, as well as that of preservation methods. In the next bay, a blue marlin is buoyed in a large tank by
cords reminiscent of the complex of supporting cables suspending the blue
whale skeleton. An accompanying text explains that the species was ‘made
famous’ by Ernest Hemingway in The Old Man and the Sea (1952). Additional
interpretation on the tank explains that the conservation is in progress, with
glycerine levels being gradually increased until the specimen reaches ideal
buoyancy. Next is a Turbinaria coral, whose monumental form poised upon
a square white plinth in a sterile vitrine resembles modern sculpture. In the
entomology bay, things start to get postmodern: the insects appear to have
come alive and wandered out of their specimen trays, whole orders flying
upwards in swarms along a Perspex column. In the final bay, seaweeds are
also displayed against transparent acrylic sheets; arranged decoratively, they
echo the museum’s botanical ceiling panels as well as the popular Victorian
pastime of pressing and drying specimens.4 The accompanying text explains
how seaweed provides energy for ocean ecosystems.
On the other side of the hall, the bays are reserved for extinct and inorganic
specimens, which become increasingly ancient with each bay. A mastodon
with its impressive tusks reminds the visitor of the impact of human hunting,
habitat loss and climate change; the animal roamed the plains of modern-day
Missouri 30–40,000 years ago. The dinosaur in the next bay, formerly known as
an Iguanodon and recently renamed after the English palaeontologist Gideon
Mantell (1790–1852), is a holotype – the individual specimen used to name and
describe a newly discovered species. Next, fossil trees up to 386 million years old
stand like giant elephant legs. In the penultimate bay, a massive banded iron
formation from 2.6 billion years ago features deep crimson and ochre striations
210  Journal of Curatorial Studies
Hope in the Archive
Natural History Museum, London (2017), displays in Hintze Hall: blue marlin (above), Turbinaria coral
(left), seaweeds (right). Photos: courtesy of the author.  211
Pandora Syperek
5. For more on the
Index Museum and its
functions, see Syperek
(2015: 51–84).
telling of climate shifts created by a sudden increase in oxygen levels produced
by photosynthetic bacteria, otherwise known as the Great Oxygenation Event,
which resulted in life on Earth. Finally, a sparkling, gem-filled meteorite from
4.5 billion years ago harks back to the time of the Earth’s formation. Although
it might not look like much, how many museum objects can claim extraterrestrial provenance? (About 5000 in the Natural History Museum’s collections alone, according to the display text.) These at times astonishing displays
convey narratives of planetary origins, evolution and sustainability, as well as
the constructed materiality of natural history specimens, showcasing different
methods of preservation and manifesting diverse exhibitionary aesthetics.
Albeit injected with current natural scientific knowledge and contemporary curatorial tropes, the Wonder Bays in fact hark back to the time of the
museum’s origin. The division of the bays into living on the left side, and
extinct or inanimate on the right, reinserts founder Richard Owen’s (1804–
1892) original vision for the museum, which saw galleries of ‘Recent Zoology’
and botany designated to the west wing, separated from the fossils and
stones of the palaeontology and mineralogy galleries that were destined for
the west wing. This distinction was aligned with mid-Victorian natural theology, which argued for intelligent design and conceived nature as essentially
immutable. Working in close consultation with Waterhouse, Owen (1880),
a renowned comparative anatomist, designed the Central Hall to house the
‘Index Museum’, which he envisioned as providing an encyclopaedic reference point both to the collections and to nature.5
Natural History Museum, London (1886), plan of the ground floor, in W.H. Flower, A General Guide to
the British Museum (Natural History), London: British Museum (Natural History) (1886). Photo: courtesy
of the author.
212  Journal of Curatorial Studies
Hope in the Archive
However, as the process of planning a purpose-built museum to house
the British Museum’s natural history collections took roughly a quarter
of a century – and coincided with the publication of the naturalist Charles
Darwin’s (1809–1882) exposition of evolution by natural selection in On the
Origin of Species (1859) – many believed that the taxonomic, indexical impulse
of Owen’s plans for the Central Hall to be obsolete by the time the British
Museum (Natural History), as it was officially titled, finally opened its doors
on 18 April 1881.6 Early on, keeper of zoology John Edward Gray (1800–1875)
lambasted Owen’s overall vision for the museum as a ‘chaos of specimens’
(1864: 78). Gray’s successor Albert Günther (1830–1914) suggested that the
Index Museum was an anachronism, dating back to its origin in a time when
the British Museum’s natural history cases were overcrowded and lacking
proper labelling, and when the practice of selecting special objects for exhibition was still novel (1880: 5).
In the end, Owen was unable to fulfil his vision for the Index Museum.
When he retired a few short years following the opening of the Natural History
Museum, the Central Hall remained empty. Owen was replaced by new director
William Henry Flower (1831–1899), an evolutionist with an approach that was
more in line with that of his colleagues. Instead of arranging the bays according
to a taxonomy of static and discrete types, Flower used them to communicate
principles of nature with comparative displays not possible in the taxonomically
arranged galleries (Ridewood 1917). Flower’s displays were noted for their visual
appeal through methods that became widely influential (Lankester 1899: 254).
He followed Gray’s recommendation to include only ‘the best-known, the most
marked, and the most interesting animals arranged in such a way as to convey
the greatest amount of information in the shortest and most direct manner, and
so exhibited as to be seen without confusion’ (Gray 1864: 78). This display ideal
has more or less been maintained to this day. However, upholding a linear narrative through select specimens signals to a continued attachment to the ideal of
modernist progress, when perhaps there is value to be found in ‘chaos’.
6. The name was only
officially changed to
the Natural History
Museum in 1992, but
this more historically
common moniker is
used throughout this
7. See MacKenzie (1997).
Size Matters
When Flower installed a modified version of the Index Museum according to
evolutionary principles in the mid- to late 1880s, he also included the skeleton
of a sperm whale, the first in a long line of superlative specimens to feature in
the Central Hall. Once again, Owen had anticipated this tradition. He envisioned the floor of the Central Hall as ‘an open space for the exhibition of a
selection of some of the rarer and more striking specimens of large size’, including skeletons of an elephant, a giraffe, an extinct giant sloth, an ancient moa
bird, a great Irish elk and a whale (1880: 4). In contrast to Owen’s taxonomical
vision for the Index Museum, these most charismatic of megafauna were more
in the vein of the early modern cabinet of curiosities – the Wunderkammer that
is now referenced in the hall’s twenty-first-century Wonder Bays. It was thus
in keeping with the museum’s origin in Hans Sloane’s (1660–1753) collection
of the ‘rare and curious’ acquired in 1753 to form the British Museum (see
the Act of Parliament cited in Flower 1886: 7). At the same time, the animals’
spectacular forms would have evoked the contemporary fair, which the sociologist Tony Bennett has called ‘the museum’s own prehistory come to haunt
it’ (1995: 4). In the sanctified space of the national museum of natural history,
however, the large and exotic animals destined for the Central Hall harboured
clear implications for class and empire.7  213
Pandora Syperek
‘View of Central Hall’ (1888), lithograph depicting the Natural History Museum, in W.H.
Flower, A General Guide to the British Museum (Natural History), London: British
Museum (Natural History) (1891). Photo: courtesy of the author.
214  Journal of Curatorial Studies
Hope in the Archive
This tradition was maintained throughout a succession of display paradigms to feature in the space. The late Victorian imperial expansion and exploration represented by the sperm whale – a species that was heavily hunted
throughout the nineteenth century for spermaceti, oil, ambergris and its ivorylike teeth – were supplanted in 1907 by an early twentieth-century vision of
trophy-hunting colonialism, with taxidermy specimens of African and Asian
elephants, which remained in the Central Hall for more than 70 years. This
display included two mounted elephant heads flanking the grand staircase,
complemented in 1920 by a bronze relief bust of the naturalist, explorer and
prolific hunter Frederick Courteney Selous (1851–1917).8 In 1931, this exhibit
was accompanied by a diorama installed in one of the bays showing three
South African elephants arranged amidst ‘forest surroundings’, in what then
director Charles Tate Regan (1878–1943) called an attempt to ‘exhibit animals
in their natural habitat’ (1931b: 4, x). By the mid-1970s, other African megafauna were also featured, including hippopotami and rhinoceroses. Finally,
late-twentieth-century edutainment took over in 1979 when the mammals
were replaced with Dippy, originally complemented by a Triceratops skeleton.9
It becomes clear that since its inauguration, the displays of the Central Hall
have shared an emphasis on spectacular size, regardless of the changing exhibition strategies and underlying narratives concerning the natural world.
8. Selous, who was
personally responsible
for the deaths of more
than 2,000 elephants
(Miller 2012: 8), donated
over 5,000 specimens
of plants and animals
to the Natural History
9. For more on dinosaurs
in twentieth-century
popular scientific
culture, see Mitchell
The Ecology of Hope
How might the lone whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling advance
the public understanding of ecology today? On one hand, the sense of awe
imparted in the encounter with such impressive specimens can be seen as
enticing visitors into an ecological mindset. As those responsible for Hope’s
reinstallation, curator Richard Sabin and conservationist Lorraine Cornish,
write, this ambition is reflected in the specimen’s naming, which was intended
by the Natural History Museum to be ‘a symbol of humanity’s power to shape
a sustainable future’ (2019: 66). Ecology, after all, developed not only out of
the scientific findings of the Victorian period, but also through its intermingling with the Romantic natural history that preceded it, including sublime
responses to natural phenomena. Little could be more sublime than a blue
whale, the largest species known to have ever lived.
The German biologist Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919) coined the term ‘oecology’ in 1866 to communicate the ‘economy of nature’ concerning the relationship of the animal to its organic and inorganic environment, the etymology
deriving from oikos, the Greek for ‘house’, ‘household’ or ‘home’ (Kormondy
1969: viii). A staunch Darwinian, Haeckel’s term expanded on concepts developed by Darwin in his formation of a web of life, encapsulated in the image
of the entangled bank: ‘elaborately constructed forms, so different from each
other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner’ (Darwin [1859]
2008: 360). Environmental historian Donald Worster writes that there are ‘two
contradictory moral implications in Darwinism: the mainstream Victorian
ethic of domination over nature and an emerging biocentric attitude that was
rooted in arcadian and romantic values’ (1985: 114). This duality is implicit in
the institution of the natural history museum.
The natural history display type most commonly associated with developing ecological concerns is the habitat diorama. Although taxidermy’s original purpose was largely aesthetic – to preserve the appearance of the animal
for observation – its incorporation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth  215
Pandora Syperek
10. On the curatorial
potential of wonder,
see the articles by
Marion Endt-Jones and
Sarah Wade in this
issue of the Journal of
Curatorial Studies.
centuries into naturalistic tableaux of wildlife arose in direct response to human
degradation of the environment (Wonders 1993: 23, 10). The lessons that dioramas conveyed were also explicitly evolutionist, as they illustrated the organism
in concert with its environment and therefore the propensity for adaptation.
Historians Karen Rader and Victoria Cain explain how the diorama revolutionized natural history display in the early twentieth century, not because of its
accurate rendition of biology, but because of its emotional appeal to the ‘sentimentality’ of natural history, providing an ostensible window onto the natural
world and thereby spurring the conservation drive (2014: 56).
An analogous imitation of life took place when the blue whale skeleton
was recently remodelled in the Central Hall. In contrast to its previous straight
and static pose in the Mammal Gallery, with flippers tucked in against its
body, intended chiefly to demonstrate the animal’s proportions (but ultimately
anatomically inaccurate), the revamped Hope’s dynamic diving pose was based
on field research on blue whale behaviour and movement (Sabin and Cornish
2019: 24, 48–52). Rather than a direct reflection of scientific progress, however,
in light of this exhibitionary history such developments can be understood as
equally responding to shifting ideals of display.
The circuitous history of the Central Hall, from whale to whale, in fact
defies notions of modernist progress. Since ecology necessarily implicates the
human in nonhuman histories – and vice versa – this rejection is demanded,
given that modernist progress has relied on the exclusion of the nonhuman (Tsing 2015: 156). By 1915, it was known that whale populations were
rapidly declining due to hunting in the Antarctic; the issue was put before the
Trustees of the British Museum (Natural History), and in 1919 the Trustees
made representation to the Colonial Office for international action (Stearn
1981: 121). While the Natural History Museum had closely monitored cetacean activity since 1913, when then keeper of zoology Sidney Frederic Harmer
(1862–1950) established the UK Stranded Whales Programme, and in 1966
the International Whaling Commission banned the commercial hunting of
blue whales (Sabin and Cornish 2019: 19, 69), it took another half a century –
and a paradigm shift in display practices, rather than in scientific research – to
highlight this issue within the exhibition programme.
The recent iteration of the Central Hall is but the latest in an ever-changing, if not necessarily evolving, ecological aesthetic propounded by the institution. In this newest development, the figure of the blue whale – a species
that was brought back from the brink of extinction in the later years of the
last century, but that remains endangered – becomes the mascot. The word
‘mascot’ comes from the Provençal mascotto, or ‘talisman’, according to the
Oxford English Dictionary, and derives from the diminutive form of masco, or
‘witch’. Thus, while pointing towards the museum object’s purpose beyond
scientific education, the museum mascot also carries a mystical, even magical
significance, suggesting the potential for untrustworthiness or treachery that
belies the post-Enlightenment ideal of scientific naturalism. In this light, Hope
is charged with extra-sensory meaning and affect.
Nevertheless, the chronological parade of spectacular displays in the
Natural History Museum’s Central Hall begs the question of whether the
wonder, or, perhaps more accurately, the awe elicited by superlative specimens really mobilizes visitors or if it can equally distract, even placate.10 While
there is concern about environmental alarmism invoking despondency, the
journalist David Wallace-Wells challenges the common adage that hope is
more motivating than fear, arguing that fear can motivate too (2019: 157). The
216  Journal of Curatorial Studies
Hope in the Archive
Installation views, Natural History Museum, London. Above: Central Hall (c.1924); Below:
Diplodocus and Triceratops skeletons (c.1979). Photos: courtesy of and © The Trustees of the Natural
History Museum, London.  217
Pandora Syperek
Hope (2017), blue whale skeleton displayed in Hintze Hall, Natural History Museum, London. Photo:
courtesy of the author.
Romantic and scientific vision of ecology, echoed equally in the ideal space of
the diorama as in the pristine modelling of the whale skeleton, largely elides
the key cultural shifts that transpired with industrialism and capitalism, which
are irreducibly as important to thinking about ecology in the Anthropocene.
As the museum’s new lucky charm, Hope is required to suspend disbelief, but
this may be at odds with representing ecological realities.
From Anthropomorphism to Affect
The emphasis on the deployment of narrative within the environmental
humanities demonstrates the continued dominance of literary and textual
readings within this interdisciplinary field. Recent scholarship in this area has
tended towards the telling of ‘extinction stories’, as Deborah Bird Rose, Thom
van Dooren and Matthew Chrulew (2017) have called for in an endeavour to
honour the experiential specificity and multifaceted processes of species loss.
Likewise, Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann position nonhuman bodies
as ‘living texts that recount naturalcultural stories’ (2014: 6, original emphasis),
again proposing a chiefly narrative approach to human and nonhuman entanglement. Although Iovino and Oppermann acknowledge that such stories
could be read as distancing metaphors, they align this ‘storied matter’ to strategic anthropomorphism, granting it the propensity to dismantle biological
218  Journal of Curatorial Studies
Hope in the Archive
hierarchies (2014: 8). And yet, like anthropomorphism, textual metaphor has
its limits when applied to naturalcultural bodies in their infinitely varied forms.
What if the nonhuman body is dead, fragmentary, reconstructed and narrativized within the context of a museum?
Storytelling strategies are complicated by the museum object’s insistent
materiality. Literary scholar Elspeth Tulloch notes that animal remains in the
museum are regularly deployed as ‘metonymic stand-ins’ for the whole of an
endangered or extinct species: ‘the skeleton in museum displays is typically
experienced by visitors as an emptied-out signifier to be sketchily filled in
with generic zoological meaning as prompted by museum labels and interpretive panels’ (2019: 1). In a specimen such as Hope, this can be understood as
the ironic inverse of anthropomorphism: her life story long lost, the whale has
been reborn as a museum object. While attention to an individual creature’s
story could be a welcome strategy for instilling nonhuman agency, to gloss
over the reality of the specimen – a collection of bones and other materials
assembled, joined and suspended by curators, conservators and technicians
in the middle of a national museum to represent an animal – would be to
ignore its material specificity and its context. Hope’s afterlife is both significantly longer and more accessible than the life of the whale who was prematurely beached.11
The Natural History Museum is an institution historically rooted in the
theological idea of the ‘Book of Nature’, and that under its new evolutionist
management relegated specimens on display to illustrations of texts (Flower
1898: 18).12 It is all too easy to narrativize the histories of its bodies and practices at the expense of its material and processual affects. And yet, it is far
too complex a temporal-material structure to take the stories it makes so
readily available at face value. Iovino and Oppermann suggest that narrative
can encompass ‘the way our interpretation is itself intermingled with what
it considers, in a material and discursive way’ (2014: 9). This understanding
of knowledge as based in mutually generative intra-action (Barad 2007) is a
more suitable model for the entanglement of agents, objects and discourses
that constitutes the museum of natural history.
Thus, analysis of the narratives underlying Hope and other displays in the
Natural History Museum requires visual-material analysis that engages with
human–nonhuman relations, both in and outside of the museum. The feminist philosopher Donna Haraway asserts the urgency of material affects and
their legacies: ‘It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it
matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with’ (2016: 12). While the
latter part of this formulation is more frequently cited, in curatorial practice
matter and stories become uniquely inextricable, as do their subjective and
objective roles. Once again, this entails a refusal to privilege content over
form, which the ecological theorist Timothy Morton warns causes ecocriticism
to become reactionary: ‘The aesthetic, and in a wider sense perception, must
form part of the foundation of a thoroughly transnational ecological criticism’
(2007: 171). Hence, questioning the aesthetic of the museum’s displays facilitates scrutiny of its culturally specific forms and their basis in imperialist ways
of knowing. Haraway emphasizes the importance of ‘reclaiming visuality as
a becoming-with or being-with, as opposed to surveying from’ (2015: 258).
To acknowledge the centrality of visual form in the Natural History Museum,
far from depoliticizing, injects the institution with a fundamental stratum of
11. For the available
research into the
Natural History
Museum blue whale’s
life, see Sabin and
Cornish (2019: 65–66).
For more on museum
specimen ‘afterlives’,
see Alberti (2011).
12. For more on the Book
of Nature in relation
to museums of natural
history, see Forgan
(1999: 192) and Rogers
and Holmes (2018:
6). For more on the
literary foundations
of the Natural History
Museum, London, see
Syperek (2015: 75–76).  219
Pandora Syperek
13. See O’Doherty (1986).
Indeed, it is easy to draw associations between natural history display and
contemporary art, ones that go beyond the unilateral influence of the former
on the latter. The museum studies scholar Hannah Paddon notes that recent
taxidermy practices are comparable to ‘white cube’ galleries intended to isolate
artworks from aesthetic distractions. In a return to the pre-diorama Victorian
practice of setting specimens against plain backgrounds – ironic, given taxidermy’s historical trajectory towards increased naturalism – ‘taxidermies are
now more likely to be displayed as works of art’, writes Paddon (2016: 103).
This tendency is witnessed in the Wonder Bays, with their stark modernist
design and minimal didactic information. The blue marlin in its clean glass
tank, for example, is distinctly reminiscent of one of Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde sharks from the artist’s Natural History series, constituting an inversion of
accepted disciplinary influence. Similarly, the monumental form of Hope could
be compared with modern sculpture, both in its clean and solid forms and in
its dynamic new pose, with which the curators intended to ‘bring the skeleton
to life’ (Sabin and Cornish 2019: 49). Like artworks in the white cube, these
decontextualized specimens risk feigning institutional neutrality through their
aestheticization, and the replication of art world tropes.13
On the flip side, if art history and visual culture studies are going to lay
claims to ecological relevance, they must remain open to a plurality of forms.
The radically non-hierarchical ecocritical history of art, or ‘art history for the
Anthropocene’, which Andrew Patrizio envisions requires that ‘there is no
scale, no scheme, no method, no ethics, no organism, no mineral with which
the history of art cannot be in symbiotic relationship’ (2018: 6, 4). The importance of a ‘horizontal’ approach within a radically expanded field applies as
much to biological hierarchy within natural history as to genre hierarchy within
art history. Objections to anthropomorphism are said to paradoxically enforce
human exceptionalism, based as they are in the assumption that humans are
substantially different from other life forms (Iovino and Oppermann 2014: 8).
Nevertheless, anthropomorphism as a strategy risks prioritizing those animals
that are more readily anthropomorphized – this is evidenced, for example, in
the relatively low proportion of invertebrate specimens on display in natural
history museums, even though they make up more than 90 per cent of all
species on Earth. This discrepancy demonstrates just how much the vision of
the natural world presented in museums remains a construct, based in historical – and contemporary – aesthetics.
Even Better than the Real Thing
One of the chief justifications for Dippy’s replacement with Hope was the
latter’s authenticity. In response to the outcry against Dippy’s removal, Natural
History Museum director Sir Michael Dixon explained that ‘a lot of people do
not realise that it is not actually a real dinosaur whereas the whale will be the
real thing’ (cited in Knapton 2015). However, the ongoing and vast array of
uses for models and other types of visual technology in the museum complicate such a simplistic formulation (Lowe et al. 2020). Furthermore, this reasoning is disingenuous in that it overlooks the cultural value of specimens, which
is paramount in a heritage institution such as a national museum of natural
history. On one hand, the focus on the veracity of specimens is symptomatic
of the combined realism and scientific discourse that the cultural theorist
Mieke Bal has labelled the ‘truth-speak’ of natural history museums (1996: 50).
On the other hand, the resulting affective encounter with the ‘original’ object
220  Journal of Curatorial Studies
Hope in the Archive
Hope (2017), detail of blue whale skeleton displayed in Hintze Hall, Natural History Museum, London.
Photo: courtesy of the author.  221
Pandora Syperek
speaks to an auratic presence in the scientific specimen that is on par with that
of the art object: the aura that the critical theorist Walter Benjamin defined as
resulting from an object’s unique ‘presence in time and space’ that designates
the ‘sphere of authenticity’, which bestows aesthetic authority ([1936] 1968:
219–21). As this aura becomes synonymous with the object’s positioning in
the museum, the same erasure of original context that has been decried by
critics of the art museum can be seen as occurring within the displays of the
natural history museum (O’Doherty 1986; Preziosi 2003).
But is Hope really ‘real?’ The dramatically articulated skeleton, which was
discovered to be incomplete upon its reinstallation, contains replica bones
3D-printed from polymer and is held together by a carbon fibre armature
made by the same company that produced the dinosaur models for the film
Jurassic Park (Sabin and Cornish 2019: 46, 56, 45). The argument for authenticity attempts to uphold what W. H. Flower called the ‘convenient and rational
division’ of natural specimens and human artefacts that was at the heart of the
Natural History Museum’s separation from the British Museum (1886: 15). But
as Hope demonstrates, this division is neither convenient nor rational. In addition to the human-made models and decorative objects fashioned from natural materials – such as coral, shell and stone – all specimens in the collection
are informed by human aesthetics. Examples include the Victorian customs
of painting whale bones black and bleaching coral specimens according to
the aesthetic preferences of audiences (Lotzof 2017). Such practices echo
the Victorian ‘taste’ for envisioning classical polychrome sculpture as white,
despite all historical evidence to the contrary (Nichols 2015).
Furthermore, to fixate on the specimen’s ‘purity’ is at odds with the main
principles of ecology, as the concept of purity relies on delineating inside
from outside, a border that exists within neither the organism nor the ecosystem (Shotwell 2016: 13). For this reason, the monumental skeleton becomes
a counterintuitive choice for representing ecology. The ecology surrounding whales does not begin and end at the giant mammals or their lifespans.
Whale falls – cetacean carcasses that have sunken to the floor of the deep
sea – host distinct microhabitats that provide a critical resource for ocean
ecosystems, and therefore, as the environmental humanities scholar Michelle
Bastian (2019) notes, extinctions that may never be known. In the Natural
History Museum, such ecosystems and their fates are invisible, in effect
engendering a form of museal unworlding (Haraway 2016: 97) through the
continued emphasis on the discrete specimen. Outlining her theory of hydrofeminism, the philosopher Astrida Neimanis argues that the ideal of ‘individualized, stable, and sovereign bodies’ no longer holds where either humans
or nonhumans are concerned, and is counterproductive when it comes to
imagining ecology: ‘Discrete individualism is a rather dry, if convenient, myth’
(2017: 2). This myth appears to be upheld in the sole suspension of the blue
whale skeleton.
Thus, the question of what is real in the museum transcends an individual specimen’s authenticity, when the intricate and fragile lived realities
of the deep sea are at stake. Anthropologist Stefan Helmreich explains how
‘marine biologists are coming to view the ocean as a web of microbial life
joining the sunniest surface waters to the dimmest depths of the sea floor’.
Rather than the blue whale, he proposes the marine microbe as the most suitable mascot for the twenty-first-century sea (2009: ix, 5–6). Correspondingly,
Timothy Morton argues that ecology must visualize the ‘unbeautiful, the
“lame” and the unsplendid’ (2010: 280) – in other words, bottom-dwellers and
222  Journal of Curatorial Studies
Hope in the Archive
microbes – as well as charismatic megafauna. Although the physical character of the deep sea appears to negate the potential for human empathy, its
smallest and strangest creatures can alternatively expand the human capacity
for empathy beyond the anthropomorphic (Alaimo 2013: 155). Such observations call for new methods of visualization. By extension, the ocean itself is a
natural and cultural object; in whale falls, skeletons are ‘invisibly scrimshawed’
by microbes burrowing for minerals in bones (Helmreich 2009: x, 1). This
multispecies paradigm and its naturalcultural histories are integral to understanding the current predicament in which inhabitants of Planet Earth find
themselves. The challenge then becomes how to present this aquatic lack of
borderlines within the dry museum air.
The Ecology of the Museum
Cultural critiques of museums of natural history have frequently employed
a binary logic opposing between ‘nature’ and its representation, the institution and its audience, the container and its contents. The architectural historian Carla Yanni has produced a pioneering study of the ‘social construction
of knowledge’ within natural history museums (2005: 3), while others have
considered how buildings that house museums of natural history ‘distinctly
reflect the changing perceptions and even the needs of the community in
which they are located’ (Leviton and Aldrich 2004: 2). However, I wish to move
beyond a constructivist model and its subject–object hierarchy, which conflicts
with the tenets of ecology. To properly address ecology in the museum, one
must consider the ecology of the museum. In his 1969 address to celebrate
100 years of the American Museum of Natural History, director James Oliver
proclaimed that ‘the Museum, like a successful living organism, has continually evolved and adapted to its changing environment’ (cited in Davis 1996:
50). This sentiment follows a long tradition of biological metaphor in thinking about architecture and specifically natural history architecture. Upon the
opening of the Natural History Museum in 1881, Richard Owen referred to
the architectural ‘anatomy’ of the new museum in South Kensington, drawing a genealogical connection to its ‘inherited structures’ from its ancestor in
Bloomsbury (Owen 1881).
But such organic analogies of adaptation and inheritance are insufficient
given the mutually generative relationship of the institution and its surrounding culture and discourse. Ironically, the anatomical model emphasizes the
discrete and static nature of the museum’s constituent elements, rather than
the intra-active aggregation of forms that continually produce the museum
at any given time, and that inform recent ecological thought. Of the ecological analogy in which the environment determines function, the architectural
scholar Philip Steadman asks what exactly is referred to by the ‘environment’,
whether meteorological, physical, spatial, material or technological (1979:
69). Steadman posits an ‘“ecological” conception of the relation of the forms
of buildings and other artefacts, via their practical functions, to the social,
cultural and material environments in which they are produced’ (1979: 62–63).
Likewise, Peter Davis proposes an ‘ecosystem model’ for the museum, based
on horizontal interdependence within nature and cross-cultural respect and
understanding (1996: 59). These relatively early conceptions of ecological
analogy deserve development in light of more recent ecological thought.
With its root meaning in the shared habitat or ‘household’ of life forms,
ecology makes a fitting model for the museum and its inhabitants. The early  223
Pandora Syperek
14. On the Crystal Palace
as a new paradigm of
display, see Preziosi
plant ecologist Frederic Clements described ecology as the ‘science of the
community’ (Kormondy 1969: ix), a notion that can encompass the motley
constituents of the museum, which do not necessarily function as organs in
a unified corpus but instead come together to form a unique coalition, each
element, whether human, animal or inorganic, as distinct and as integral as
the rest. However, the anthropologist Anna Tsing rejects the utopian and
inward-looking connotations of the ecological ‘community’ as limiting, preferring instead the term assemblage, which makes room for the non-living, the
ethically ambiguous and the open-ended (2015: 22–23). Such a model is apt
for an institution with such diverse and treacherous histories and players as
the Natural History Museum. Drawing on the new materialist philosopher
Jane Bennett’s notion of the ‘heterogeneous assemblage’ of bodies in encounter (2010: 23), Patrizio proposes curatorial practice as innately ecological (2018:
23, n. 65). The museum therefore becomes an embodied practice of form over
content, the entanglement of its diverse bodies negating the mirroring and
contained logic of representation and social construction.
As well as in space, these bodies also move across time. The philosopher
Elizabeth Grosz has proposed a reconsideration of time in architecture, questioning how to think beyond ‘the evolutionary fit assumed to hold between
being and building’; rather than a unified whole, Grosz envisions architecture
as a series of becomings (2001: xix, 59, 71). This conception clearly applies
to London’s Natural History Museum, an institution that has seen multiple
architectural and curatorial interventions over the past century-and-a-half,
inextricable from the various human and nonhuman actants. The foundation of the museum, and its location in the museums quarter instigated
by Prince Albert in South Kensington, is rooted in the Great Exhibition of
1851, which created its own climate set apart by sheet glass in the Crystal
Palace in Hyde Park, a vision of what the literary scholar Jesse Oak Taylor has
termed the ‘world-as-glasshouse’ (2016: 24). Taylor situates this exhibitionary phenomenon within the context of a late nineteenth-century ‘imaginative process whereby climate and human society were beginning to appear
as mutually influential’ (2016: 26). Hence, the display poetics set out by the
Great Exhibition reflected this social and environmental experiment, wherein
‘Victorian London constituted a new kind of human habitat’ (2016: 24).14 It
is against this novel anthropogenic ecosystem and its curatorial sublimation
that the Natural History Museum was conceived as an antidote to naturedeprived urban experience (Syperek 2015: 167). This entangled history of the
human with the nonhuman has shaped the museum more than any discrete
‘natural’ history ever has.
Beyond Hope
The question remains: what is the relationship between antique bones in
the museum and hope for the future of the planet? Hope and the Wonder
Bays make great strides towards highlighting the intersections of human and
nonhuman histories, while drawing on the Natural History Museum’s own
source material: preserved animal bodies collected in a period that upheld
visual taxonomies and corresponding biological hierarchies. But, albeit in
a new guise, Hope maintains the museum’s century-and-a-half tradition of
enlightened spectacle. As well as an icon of ecology, Hope can be seen as
upholding the unitary subject, European universalism and the associated colonial drive to mastery.
224  Journal of Curatorial Studies
Hope in the Archive
While the Hintze Hall installation begins to address the anthropogenic
impact on the natural world, these deep-seated histories could be further and
more explicitly explored. Helmreich connects the contemporary spectre of
death presented by images of global warming, coral bleaching and contamination with the older vision of the sea as a space of drowning, shipwreck and
lifelessness, these representing ‘only the surface of a submerged history’ that
includes imperialism, the Middle Passage, submarine warfare and radioactive waste (2009: 23). Perhaps if these past and contemporary naturalcultural
histories – however hopeless – were given voice, and the arbitrary divisions
of human and nonhuman were renegotiated, natural history museums might
begin to reclaim their ecological relevance. Moreover, the museum must
account for its own implication in such problematic histories. For example, as
the curators Subhadra Das and Miranda Lowe (2018) have demonstrated, the
Natural History Museum itself was founded upon racist science and colonial
collecting practices involving slavery and cultural appropriation.
While the museum practitioners Scott D. Sampson and Sarah B. George’s
recommendation for a ‘natural history museum for the twenty-first century’
(2004: 288) is to foster biophilia, drawing on A.O. Wilson’s term, this optimistic call seems radically at odds with the museum type that, more than
any other, is literally a mausoleum.15 Sampson and George suggest drawing
on Indigenous peoples’ worldview of ‘seeing themselves as fully embedded
within life’s web’ (2004: 287). However, the leap of logic required to insert such
a perspective into an establishment that is founded upon the suppression of
non-European values would engender institutional cognitive dissonance, if
the museum does not reconceive or at least acknowledge its own framework.
To impose Indigenous ways of knowing on an institution constituted by colonialist methods would risk undermining Indigenous knowledge while leaving
the violent institutional history undisturbed.
The Natural History Museum, London has routinely instilled a linear
scientific narrative, which, as I have demonstrated, is dismantled by its display
histories and shifting ecological aesthetics. To create a meaningful reflection
on contemporary ecological realities, natural history displays must make space
for a diversity of ways of being and knowing that acknowledge both multispecies worlding and the historical contexts of display, and therefore the instability of representation. Only then can museums destabilize the ritual of progress
– whether expressed in biophilia or necrophilia – and its foundation in a colonizing relationship to the natural world. By incorporating the institution’s own
history with more-than-human histories, museums can begin to transcend
the ‘truth-speak’ of nineteenth- and twentieth-century ideologies and foreground an entangled ecological ethic, however messy.
15. On the art museum
as mausoleum, see
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This article was supported by a Publications Grant from the Paul Mellon
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Contributor Details
Pandora Syperek is a research associate at Loughborough University London.
She is currently preparing a monograph on the gendering of jewel-like objects
in the Natural History Museum, London, and has published articles on
gender in John Ruskin’s mineralogical curation, trans-animality in Victorian
insect displays, and queering the Blaschka glass models in the Coral Gallery.
From 2016 to 2017, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the Paul Mellon Centre
for Studies in British Art. She has taught modern and contemporary art and
display practices at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, University College London and
York University.
Contact: 45 Walsingham Road, London, E5 8NE, UK.
Pandora Syperek has asserted their right under the Copyright, Designs and
Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work in the format that
was submitted to Intellect Ltd.  229
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exhibiting blackness
A Note on Terminology
In the interests of greater historical accuracy, in this book I use the terms
“Negro,” “Colored,” and “Black” in discussing the periods during which
they were utilized by African Americans. The political act of naming is significant as it demonstrates the struggle for racial self-representation and
efforts to transform the perception of African Americans throughout the
twentieth century. I have also capitalized the terms “Black” and ”White” to
suggest the extent to which the social realities they imply have shaped the
representation of African American art.
African Americans Enter
the Art Museum
In Exhibiting Blackness I offer a critical exploration of the discourse of
African American art and culture in American art museums. The exhibition strategies for representation vary as the narratives of each exhibition
strive for their claims on the historical and contemporary representation of
Black art and culture. My goal is to explore the assertions made in the unequal and often contested relationship between African American artists,
curators, visitors, and critics in the mainstream art world.
Exhibitions of African American art in American art museums have been
curated through two guiding methodologies: the anthropological approach,
which displays the difference of racial Blackness from the elevated White
“norm,” and the corrective narrative, which aims to present the work of significant and overlooked African American artists to a mainstream audience.
The former methodology reflects an institutional curiosity concerning the
presence of racial otherness, commonly coupled with a desire to perpetuate
the superiority of mainstream White culture through its contrast to a Black
difference defined as inherently inferior. The latter methodology was formed
out of the necessity to present the art of African Americans and correct for
its historical absence and misrepresentation in mainstream art museums.
Within these exhibitions are key tensions that pull in constant negotiation
with each other: the desire for group exhibitions of art to serve as catalysts
for social change; the compulsion to place Black artists within a framework of

discovery and primitivism; and the assertion of the historical and contemporary legitimacy of Black artists in America. The strains among these tensions
shift in prominence within the discourse of each exhibition. However, each
of these tensions is consistently represented through the roles of the curators, artists, critics, and visitors. Regardless of the intentions of the curators,
exhibitions of art by African Americans are often perceived through a limiting “either/or” paradigm: through a lens of either anthropological study or
aesthetic value. African American a…

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