Thesis Info

Thesis Title
Un-Natural Histories: The Specimen as Site of Knowledge Production in Contemporary Art
Helen Gregory
2nd Author
3rd Author
Doctor of Philosophy
Number of Pages
University of Western Ontario
Thesis Supervisor
Dr. Bridget Elliott
Supervisor e-mail
belliott AT
Other Supervisor(s)
Language(s) of Thesis
Department / Discipline
Visual Arts/Visual Culture
Languages Familiar to Author
English, French
URL where full thesis can be found
Natural History, Taxidermy, Bioart, Art-science Collaboration, Museum Studies, Natural History Collections, Natural History Specimens, Taxonomy, Cabinet of Curiosities, Chimera, Genetic Manipulation, Tissue Culture
Abstract: 200-500 words
One of the primary functions of museums is the preservation and deployment of knowledge as articulated through collected artifacts. In the case of natural history museums, these collections consist largely of preserved specimens that, despite being natural in origin, all share the marks of the human hand as a result of the processes of preservation and display. Such processes engender a fusion of nature and culture: the transformation of nature into objects of material culture. Given the challenges that arise from shifting definitions of what constitutes a natural history specimen in an age when life is being re-defined and re- configured, and living matter is treated as a mutable and expressive substance, I question how our perception of the “order of life” has been impacted by recent developments in genetic manipulation, tissue engineering, and DNA taxonomy. I extend the discussion of the impact of the human hand on natural objects to include the practices of contemporary artists whose practices borrow heavily from museum technologies, such as taxidermy, wet preservation, field research, scientific illustration, and bioartists whose practices use biotechnology to investigate the shifting relationship between living organisms and taxonomy. I ask how the work of artists who are addressing these classificatory shifts can illuminate how we understand such changes. How can the work of artists using biotechnology be positioned in relation to artists who use more traditional practices to address similar issues? How is the discipline of the natural history museum implicated in these practices? I focus on the hierarchical nature of knowledge in art and science, the changing use of language in classification, systems of preservation and display, and mutations and hybrid organisms, to suggest that natural history as a discipline, can be viewed as a mediating factor between the museum, on the one hand, and both scientific and art practices on the other. The specimen therefore functions as a site of knowledge production that merges both the museological impulses of preservation and conservation with the scientific/laboratory-based impulses of experimentation and alteration.