Friday, April 6, 2012

Activating Stilled Lives: The Aesthetics and Politics of Specimens on Display; International Conference at the Department of History of Art, UCL

This exciting conference--free and open to all!--just announced! Looks like a good one; so wish I could go!
Cultures of Preservation
Prepared specimens appear in many guises: as monstrous or typical organs preserved in formaldehyde and kept in glass jars not unlike pickled food, as stained and fixed tissue slices, or as skilfully arranged mounted animals. They may be found in cabinets of curiosities, in the laboratories of histologists, in anatomy theatres or in natural history collections, but nowadays equally in art galleries, the shop windows of fashionable boutiques, or horror films. This research network is concerned with such kinds of preserved natural objects, in particular with anatomical wet or dry preparations and taxidermy. It explorses the hybrid status of these objects between nature and representation, art and science and studies their fabrication, history and display.

The network is a collaboration between the UCL Department of History of Art, UCL collections, in particular the Grant Museum of Zoology, the Hunterian Museum, London and the Natural History Museum, London.

Activating Stilled Lives: The Aesthetics and Politics of Specimens on Display
International conference at the Department of History of Art, UCL
Thursday 17 May - Friday 18 May 2012

The past twenty years saw an explosion of exhibitions fathoming the relations between art and science as well as numerous refurbishments of natural history or former colonial museums. Many of these displays and gallery transformations mobilised specimens, be it taxidermied animals or preserved human body parts. Objects were put into new contexts opening up their meanings, others disappeared in storage or travelled back to the countries where they were once collected. The conference will address the challenges institutions face when dealing with formerly living entities and consider the aesthetics and politics of their display. The idea is to discuss the use of specimens in temporary exhibitions, museums or university collections and the role curators, art and artists have been playing in the transformation of these spaces. We also would like to consider how preserved specimens have changed through the altering contexts in which they have been displayed. One could name the initial transformation of organisms into objects, the more recent re-definition of pathological specimens as human remains, or the dramatic rearrangements that took place when natural history, anthropology or anatomy collections (many dating from the nineteenth century) were updated – coinciding with a shift in audiences, from specialists to a broader public. Often the historical displays were significantly altered, or even destroyed and replaced by „techy“ but at times also sentimentalised, „post-modern“ installations that still await a critical assessment.

Beyond that, the question of preservation shall be considered in a more expanded sense, as this subject area offers a unique opportunity to reflect more broadly on issues of conservation and their ethics and to raise a variety of questions such as: How and why do various cultures preserve elements of what is considered as nature? How does this relate to environmental notions of conservation and extinction? Should flawed specimens be disposed of? Can museums as a whole be considered cultural preserves? Should we preserve the preserves? And last but not least: Do we really need to embalm everything?

Confirmed speakers: Claude d'Anthenaise (Director, Musée de la chasse et de la nature, Paris), Steve Baker (Artist and Art Historian, Norfolk), Christine Borland (Artist, Glasgow), Mark Carnall (Curator, Grant Museum of Zoology, London), Nélia Dias (Anthropologist, Lisbon), Anke te Heesen (Museology / European Ethnology, Berlin), Petra Lange-Berndt (Art Historian, London), John MacKenzie (Professor Emeritus of Imperial History, Lancaster), Robert Marbury (Artist / Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermy, Baltimore), Angela Matyssek (Art Historian, Marburg / Maastricht), Lisa O'Sullivan (Curator, Science Museum/art-history/events/culture_of_preservation London), Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (Historian of Science, Berlin), Rose Marie San Juan (Art Historian, London), Johannes Vogel (Director, Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin)

Detailed programme: For further information please contact
Mechthild Fend m.fend(@) or Petra Lange-Berndt p.lange-berndt(@)
More information available here.

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