Sunday, August 4, 2013

Nature is no longer an Exotic Foreign Land, out there somewhere (over the freakin' rainbow)

"The old museum genre has been turned on its head: this is not a narrative of an all-seeing culture evolving out of the wilds of nature, but of a culture tentatively trying to find its way into nature."
The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is remaking the natural history museum. The old-style museum, writes Edward Rothstein in The New York Times, "evolved in the 19th century, displaying the geological cataclysms that molded the earth’s surface, the creatures that clambered into habitats and the indigenous cultures that were once considered closer to nature."

Something old, something new:
The stunning dioramas that were mounted in the 1920s and ’30s remain graciously intact. So do the museum’s greatest fossils. The original 1913 Beaux-Arts rotunda still makes its antique promise of nobility and grandeur. What natural history museum, though, would display, as we find here, one of the first crucifixes to make its way to California in the 18th century? Or the carefully scuffed shoes and torn clothes of Charlie Chaplin’s tramp from “City Lights”? And while we would expect to see the skeletal remnants of a baby Tyrannosaurus, why the chassis of an equally extinct Tourist, a 1902 wooden car that was the best-selling automobile in California before World War I?
And our own activity has become entered into the tattered old Book of Nature:
But what is the nature of the museum’s redefinition? We get some hints in the halls devoted to mammals and dinosaurs, where explanations, interpretations and uncertainties accompany dramatic displays. The emphasis is on how paleontologists learn and on how our understanding has changed. Scientists appear in videos and panels, outlining arguments and demonstrating procedures. This is quite different from the monumental mounts of old, or the slice-of-nature dioramas that are so haunting partly because there is no sign of a human presence.

It really is a transformation of the genre. We used to see a history of life’s forms laid out before us, presumably culminating in the achievements of ... those who created the museum. Now we see something different. “Natural history” becomes not the history of nature but the history of human interactions with nature. And the focus narrows from the universal to the local.
It turns out, wouldn't you know it? that nature (lower case "n") is all around us:
Los Angeles County, we learn, has more bird species than any other county in the nation. Displays whimsically outline staff members’ experiences in learning about their surroundings. Nature is not somewhere else, but always right here: “Houses, bridges and office buildings,” we read, “can turn out to be great homes for wildlife.”
And citizen science is on the move!
The visitor is lured in as a participant. “Help us map L.A.’s nature by doing what you love,” a wall label reads, soliciting Web contributions. “Send us a photo of road kill (it doesn’t count if you kill it on purpose),” is one example, with contributions to go to a Web site. The museum’s “citizen science” program, we learn, has “discovered two lizard species that had not been previously recorded in the Greater L.A. Area.”
Sounds to me like someone's been reading Latour, Morton, and others.

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