On natural history and the anti-nostalgic

Earlier this week I was part of a really interesting discussion about the question of ‘engagement’ and what it might mean in the space of natural history and speculative imagination.

I’ve been working in the Museum sector for a little over a year and the question of engagement is an intriguing one. Having worked in community based tech and science organisations like MadLab, I guess I just expected the equivalent of citizen science – ‘engagement’ sounded like continuous reciprocal communication with visitors and participatory approaches as default but the realities of funding and organisational structures quickly made it clear it’s not nearly that simple.

The puzzle of engagement remains at every level, especially when considering putting it into practice. Even regarding the purely theoretical, we all have different understandings of ‘engagement’ – is it about getting feedback? Is it ideating with target/non-target audiences? Is it co-production? And what about the intertwined complexities of funding, accreditation and accountability?

It’s kind of obvious to say that pain points are in the eye of the beholder, but when it comes to natural history and the question of engagement, it never hurts to be blunt. When it comes to mainstream perceptions of natural history, often nostalgia acts as a kind of blocker to engagement with anything beyond the spectacle (dinosaurs, whales and the occasional megatherium) of nature.

What’s more, it’s that very capital which the natural history museum trades on; the warm and fuzzy half memory, half sensation of illegally eating sweets whilst the insert-appropriate-elder-figure-here held ones hand and pointed out a most likely inaccurate piece of trivia from a half remembered TV documentary. The knowledge that a specimen could always be found in a particular spot on a particular floor of the museum, that one could behold the awesome of the world even if through a glass darkly(!).

How can the museum engage audiences in the questions of climate change, extraction and extinction, environmental and social futurities if it’s not understood that the natural history museum has a right to raise these questions in the first place? The question becomes more pressing when one considers that even amongst scientific researchers, we find that ‘the nature of natural history as a non-experimental science causes some … to dismiss it as unscientific'[1]. In some ways, the primary drive of commercial survival (where nostalgia and spectacle become the mechanism of infantilisation, driving the laity to the authority of the museum) has contributed to an unfortunate feedback loop which has served to undermine the self same authority to serve as an explanatory and predictive entity.

From a design perspective, it seems the task remains to subvert nostalgic expectations in order to reveal the enmeshed challenges that the data reveals. But how and what would that look like? If we were simply to induce the opposite of nostalgia, we would encounter the lack of an easy antonym. One typically finds suggestions like ‘futuristic’ and ‘expectant’, which somehow aren’t quite right. We want to engender a confidence that one can interrogate the natural world for ones own sake, rather than passively engage with its beauty and spectacle, our only option but to lament and sigh as we ‘lose’ vast swathes of it. It’s not so much looking behind that is the problem; we are trying to transform the disempowerment that arises from a false sense of security.

If the nostalgia we’re talking about is the sensation of looking back with pathos at a time and place when we once felt secure in our knowledge and perception of the world, is the subversion to turn that into curiosity about the things we didn’t know? That is certainly the methodology of practical ‘decolonisation’ wherein we ask deeper questions about who actually discovered, named and gave labour to enable the institutions we now see as part of our own national identities. Thus we’re able to reveal truths about the multidisciplinary nature of the colonial project and its ramifications for global policy and economic strategy. By naming the unnamed, we certainly contribute to a decentering of the museum but there is another step to transform the questioning into active engagement rather than another form of passive (albeit more cynical) consumption.

A photo of Tanzanian workers at the site of discover of Giraffatitan (formerly Brachiosaurus) brancai, 1909 -1913
Tanzanian workers at the site of discover of Giraffatitan (formerly Brachiosaurus) brancai, 1909 -1913

For now I’m left with the question: which is it that we’re breaking down here, the nostos (home) or the algos (pain)?


[1] King, H. Achiam, M (2017) The Case for Natural History


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s