Nature(s), Archive and Anthropology: Tahani Nadim and Fritha Langerman discuss making good trouble in Natural History Museums

14 Dec 2020 - 11:30

by Magdaleen du Toit

The second Spirals virtual seminar was held on Friday 27 November 2020. Titled Nature(s), Archive and Anthropology, the invited speaker for the session was Professor Tahani Nadim from CARMAH (Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage) and the Museum of Natural History, Berlin. Our discussant was Associate Professor Fritha Langerman from the Michaelis School of Fine Art.

Towards the end of the discussion, Nadim was asked by an audience member how she understands her role in the museum in instigating a humanities approach to natural history. “Making good trouble”, Nadim answered. By presenting different perspectives, asking left field questions, and facilitating incremented mental change, she challenges dominant narratives within the museum space, and offered insight into such practices through her talk, ‘Data formations: legacies and futures in natural history’.

Nadim is uniquely situated for making good trouble; working out of the Humanities of Nature department within the Natural History Museum of Berlin.  Data practices (classification, taxonomies, digitisation) within the natural history museum – its operations, structures, and implementation – is Nadim’s research focus. Introducing the concept of data formation as an encapsulation of the pasts and futures of natural history, Nadim drew the audience’s attention to The Global Biodiversity Information Facility (accessible at GBIF.org). The GBIF provides open-access biodiversity data, that includes where and when species have been recorded, ranging from 18th and 19th century museum specimens to present day geotagged smartphone photos. In listing living creatures spotted in the wild alongside dated tissue collections and stuffed members of their species provokes questions of natural history museums’ politics of collecting. This speaks to the transformative stage museums find themselves in with regards to digitisation - challenging and changing concepts of relation, history and nature. Within and between collections, human relations complicate and saturate data formations on nature, and having to look at the provenance and acquisition of specimens, and its attendant economic and political contexts, museums are compelled “to face their ghosts”.

Langerman elaborated on this point by suggesting that there is a need for the humanities to play a role in the natural history museum. Referring to her exhibition at Iziko South African Museum, Subtle Thresholds: the representational taxonomies of disease, Langerman drew attention to the effectiveness of small interventions within the museum space, interrupting the viewer’s understanding and encouraging a different perspective. Museum visitors are reliant on disembodied collections to communicate knowledge and insight on nature yet, to quote Langerman, “specimens are already an index of absences”. By decontextualising specimens these absences can be addressed.

The term ‘intervention’ sparked further deliberation. Nadim prefers the term ‘generative critique’ as ‘intervention’ connotes temporality. Time is essential in changing institutional practices – a point Nadim frequently emphasised. This opened the floor for a discussion on the efficacy of curatorial intervention in productively undermining the museum visitors’ expectations of wonder and disrupting their comfort with unanticipated interaction; curators conveying their views by means of artists, acting as “curatorial ventriloquists”; the culture of cataloguing; and the artists offering input in important decision making processes.

Nadim and Langerman’s session, with intriguing points made by the audience, provides a refreshing and compelling outlook on the curatorial and the archive. Their practices serve as an example and reminder to researchers, curators, artists, and museum visitors alike to question the dominant ontologies, and to follow the maxim: make good trouble. 

Watch the recording of the discussion between Tahani, Fritha and researchers from both institutions, here.

 

Magdaleen du Toit is a Master’s student at the Michaelis School of Fine Art. Her research is focused on the !kun collection of notebooks, watercolours and drawings in the Bleek and Lloyd archive. In dissecting the collection to determine how it had been convened, she hopes to offer various points of entry to this understudied, yet integral, section of the archive.

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