Special Subject: Architecture Studies — Earth on Display: The Anthropocene in the Museum of Natural History

How do we exhibit something as unimaginable as climate change? Climate change is not only as a crisis of the physical environment but also as a crisis of the cultural environment –of the systems of representation through which we relate to and imagine the complexity of environmental ruins in their vast scales of time and space. In the nineteenth century, museums of Nature captured the public imagination and gave visitors an appreciation of the scales and sciences of the Earth. The damaged condition of the Earth bears little resemblance to the plethora of displays and dioramas still populating natural history museums. Such prominent and widely visited institutions have yet to adapt their affective communication strategies on climate change. For people to make sense of the impacts of climate change–of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, ocean acidification, species loss­–what is urgently needed is a renewed media strategy for displaying and assembling the Earth.

The design workshop reintegrates "wonder" as a mode of knowledge communication into natural history museum exhibitions on climate change. With advice and assistance from curatorial and program staff at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (HMNH), students will identify, explore, and possibly incorporate natural history artifacts and specimens that tell a story of anthropogenic environmental transformations. The course requirements are an on-site installation at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (open on November 4) and an exhibition catalog that documents the conceptual, methodological, and representational inquiry of the course (to be completed by end of term). Throughout the course, students will identify and analyze key precedents in art, architecture, and curatorial practices to speculate on affective strategies that engage the wicked problem of climate change.

The course deploys research and design to stage the matters of climate change. It addresses some of these questions: How can climate change be imagined, spatialized, experienced, and made public? And what are corresponding media of dissemination and communication that engages such trans-disciplinary issues –beyond a series of digital screens and a language of gilt and techno-fixes? What artifacts of evidence — forms of knowledge and material evidence– can be channeled?  What are the representational worlds — the Anthropocene “cabinet of curiosities” that make the concerns of climate change legible, knowable, sense-able, and actionable to broader publics?