European Commission - 7th Framework Programme European Museums and Libraries in/of the age of migrations last updated: February 2015

Knowing Things. Circulations and Transitions of Objects in Natural History

23-24 March 2015

Berlin, Germany  | Museum für Naturkunde


This call for papers we invite researchers and young scholars from different fieldsincluding, but not limited to, the history and theory of collections, museum studies, cultural history, art history and aesthetics – to present exemplary moments of transition in the history of natural specimens and to explore the impact of spatial and disciplinary mobility on the history and theory of Wissensdinge.

The natural history collections in German museums and universities are immense and currently comprise nearly 140 million diverse objects. Thus, natural history objects make up the majority of objects in museum and university collections. These Wissensdinge can be found in collections of animal sounds, in DNA and tissue collections, in mineralogical, paleontological and zoological collections, in collections of digital reproductions, birds, furs, fish, bees, spiders, or worms. As disparate as these objects are, so too are the methods of preparing and presenting them: they are pinned, preserved, molded, furnished with inscriptions and staged in spatial arrangements.

Despite the heterogeneity of these collection items, their histories conincide in one aspect: their repeated de- and recontextualization. This suggests that natural history objects undergo a pattern of movements and it is this mobility which we would like to historically reflect on and systematically discuss. Even after natural history objects become part of a collection – that is, after they are transferred into an apparently rigid storage and cataloging system and hence immobilized – they nevertheless continue to be repeatedly set into states of extensive mobility. They move between collection and laboratory, research and exhibition, classroom, science and the public, and serve as source material for international research networks.

Together with this spatial mobility of Wissensdinge comes their disciplinary mobility: natural history objects lie at the intersection of different disciplines and of different technical as well as methodological approaches. Curators, conservators, taxidermists, natural scientists, exhibition designers, cultural scientists, artists, as well as museum visitors and other publics have access to Wissensdinge, place them in new contexts, assign specific purposes and designate meanings. Mobilized objects can thus act as epistemic things, collection objects, teaching objects or exhibition pieces, as historical or artistic sources, illustrations for cultural histories or memorabilia, as resources, commodities or cultural heritage. Moreover, the de- and recontextualization of natural history objects can also be understood through a temporal perspective: Natural history objects not only change their (disciplinary) location, but also their physical state, for example through preparation, (natural) ageing or repairs.

The goal of this conference is to contribute to the history and theory of Wissensdinge by reconstructing historical transitions and threshold areas within their institutional contexts, the collection and the museum. Can we identify different phases in the mobility of things of knowledge? How do various spaces of knowledge, such as the laboratory, the collection and the exhibition, influence the ways of handling natural history objects? How do meanings attributed to these objects vary in different contexts? Rather than constructing a “biography” oriented towards the life cycle of the object, should we not instead be telling a history of fractures and shifts? Finally, to what extent does an expanded, multidisciplinary approach impact the use, meaning and presentation of Wissensdinge?

The focus of the conference will be on case studies. These will provide the basis for exploring the degree to which this fundamental characteristic of Wissensdinge – their mobility – can serve as a point of departure for better understanding natural history objects. Using the history of tangible objects within their institutional framework, we want to examine the extent to which Wissensdinge are shaped, not only by their materiality, but rather by their migration through diverse realms of knowledge, through technical settings, and through scientific, political, as well as cultural discourses. Furthermore, we want to ask how these settings and discourses are in turn shaped by things of knowledge. The conference will focus on the time period between the mid-19th century and the present.

The conference is organized by the research department PAN – Perspectives on Nature (Perspektiven auf Natur), Museum für Naturkunde Berlin in cooperation with the scientific collections of the Humboldt-Universität and with the base project “Mobile Objects” in the Cluster of Excellence “Image Knowledge Gestaltung. An interdisciplinary Laboratory”.

Sponsored by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.


» link to the Conference