Ruth Phillips, The Museum Curious: Heterogeneous History, Interdisciplinary Practice, Holistic Ethos
Museums are curious institutions in two senses, one arising from the eccentricities and peculiarities of their histories, and the other from their ongoing desire to display, provoke, and satisfy their visitors’ curiosity about the world in which they live. In neither sense can curiosity be understood as a neutral quality, for, as the deconstructive critiques of Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars have shown, Western museum collections are material deposits of the different forms curiosity has taken in the course of four centuries of European imperial expansion and colonial domination. Although this consciousness has shaken the foundations of museums and dislodged the collections they hold, their value as places where colonial legacies can be negotiated and shared concerns addressed remains compelling. Responding to Nicholas Thomas’s recent book, The Return of Curiosity, to Actor-Network Theory’s insistence on connecting disciplinary knowledges, and to Indigenous reaffirmations of holistic knowledge formation, this talk will explore a range of recent museum projects that invoke curiosity to transgress the museum’s modern disciplinary boundaries.
Paul Smith, Visions of Nature: Art Meets Science
In 1860 a radical new building opened in the University of Oxford to house the growing scientific departments, with a museum of natural history at its core. The vision for the project had been Henry Acland’s who, with his friend John Ruskin, enlisted the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood for advice on the architecture and decoration. The result is a building that is both unique, and overwhelming in its detail. In recent years, Oxford University Museum of Natural History has redefined itself as a place of contemporary science, but has also begun to examine once again the interface between art and science. In 2016, under the banner Visions of Nature, the museum held a yearlong festival of contemporary art to draw in new audiences. The visual art, photography and poetry produced, intertwined with the geology and zoology research on which it is based, has had a lasting impact on the museum’s practice.