|Draft project summary|
|17 December 1996|
By Tim Sherratt, Australian Science Archives Project|
In June 1768, John Codd, a carpenter, was commissioned to build 20 strong wooden chests with hinged lids and locks. In these and many other containers were packed 'all sorts of machines for catching and preserving insects; all kinds of nets, trawls, drags and hooks for coral fishing; many bottles with ground stoppers of several sizes to preserve animals in spirits', as well as preserving salts, artists materials and a natural history library. Overseeing the work was Joseph Banks, who was putting together the most well-equipped scientific expedition of its time - a voyage into the uncharted southern seas aboard the Endeavour. 'No people ever went to sea better fitted out for the purpose of Natural History, nor more elegantly', wrote one contemporary.
Over 200 years later, a replica Endeavour is returning to England. The first Endeavour returned with its wooden chests crammed with many thousands of plant and animal specimens, signalling Australia's incorporation into the process of Western science. In the intervening years Australia has established its own active and innovative scientific culture. In place of Banks's chests the replica Endeavour is carrying a representation of this change - a fulfilment of the enterprise undertaken by Banks. This is the Cabinet of Curiosities.
Collecting has a history of its own. The age of European discovery and exploration in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw the emergence of the private gentleman's 'cabinet of curiosities' as a showcase for the exotica of the New World. Francis Bacon wrote in 1594 of the essential apparatus required by a learned man. As well as a library, garden and laboratory, he neededThe concept of the Cabinet of Curiosities was inspired by a number sources, including John Codd's invoice for Banks's many chests and Allen Kurzweil's novel A Case of Curiosities. The idea is to mount our own collection, not of specimens this time, but of stories drawn from Australia's rich scientific heritage - stories mediated not by objects, but by art. The Cabinet of Curiosities, then, is more of an art installation than a museum exhibition. Its aim is not to assemble a series of significant artefacts, but to represent important themes in Australia's scientific development.a goodly, huge cabinet, wherein whatsoever the hand of man by exquisite art or engine has made rare in stuff, form or motion; whatsoever singularity, chance and the shuffle of things has produced; whatsoever Nature has wrought in things that want life and may be kept; shall be sorted and included.The artefacts of nature and of history were displayed together.
'Have you ever heard of the memento hominem?', he asked. He dropped his aitches, so that it sounded like 'ava you ever eared of dee memento omeenem?'The Cabinet of Curiosities will also tell an extraordinary tale.
There will be three sections which will be locked in place while travelling, but which will be able to be separated for display purposes. Each section will be related to one of the three main themes described below.
The half-width drawers in Section 2 will be used in pairs (ie. each pair will tell one story). This means there are 9 exhibition spaces (4 trays + 3 pairs of half drawers + 2 full drawers). However, one tray will remain empty.
The cabinet is being constructed by Greg St John at the Canberra School of Art.
Australian science?The Cabinet of Curiosities is intended to provide a representation of the development of science in Australia. Or is that the development of Australian science? Is there a difference? What does it mean to say that Australia has developed its own scientific culture?
though scientific discourse is international, its practice is at the same time socially bound. Individual scientists inevitably work within the confines of the societies in which they live as well as of the scientific disciplines to which they contribute. The most challenging task facing the historian of science today is to delineate, in any particular case, the interlocking intellectual, social and economic strands that shaped the work of individuals and groups and thus determined events, and very often social strands will be best defined within a particular linguistic or geographical or national context. Hence, even if 'Australian science' is, strictly speaking, a phrase that lacks content, to study the history of science as it has been practised in Australia remains an intellectually coherent thing to do.Questions about the development of science in Australia cannot be easily divorced from questions about science itself. Science is international, but it is also local, it permeates our lives and our histories. By exploring the experience of Australian scientists we learn more about the way science is disseminated, encouraged and, indeed, retarded. But by reflecting on the processes and structures of science we gain new perspectives on the Australian experience. The Cabinet of Curiosities is neither about science, nor Australia, but about the sites at which these two meet - within the experience, achievements, hardships and glories of Australia's men and women of science.
This reluctance to fully commit the work to the cultural analysis of science, is demonstrated by the editor's attempt to justify the use of the term 'Australian science'. Such a justification is undertaken in deference to the perceived 'international' nature of science. Science can, of course, be readily seen as international at certain levels of its social structure - scientists interact with scientists from other countries - though there are very definite limits on such interactions. But the claim would seem to be stronger, that the content of science, by its nature, is international. If this is perceived to be so, then it is only because of our historical situation, which locates us within a particularly invasive scientific tradition. This tradition was created within certain expansionist cultures, and has, through transmission and colonisation, been able to establish an 'international' network. It is cultural arrogance, rather than epistemological certainty, which encourages our tendency to equate 'science' with 'modern science' or 'western science'. What is 'international' is hence taken to be universal.This theme will be explored through a number of sub-themes and stories, detailed below.
Unpacking, exploration and understandingThe Cabinet of Curiosities is intended to evoke a sense of mystery. What is in the cabinet? What is its message? The construction of the cabinet itself, with its many drawers and trays, will invite exploration, taking advantage of people's natural fascination with opening, unpacking and unfolding. This 'unpacking' metaphor will be carried on through the display of the cabinet, which will be presented in the process of being unpacked. It is also hoped that a video will be displayed alongside the static exhibition, showing the cabinet being taken apart, its drawers opened and removed, and its contents gradually revealed.
It is hoped that some of the artworks will carry on this metaphor - perhaps involving books, boxes or other containers. This may mean that the entire contents cannot be displayed at once - a book for example would have to be displayed open at a particular page. However, this in turn will add to the sense of mystery, to the sense that there is much more to the Cabinet of Curiosities than first meets the eye.
The links between this 'unpacking' theme and the historical content of the cabinet is straightforward. In one sense the cabinet is simply delivering narratives about men and women involved in Australian science, but looking again at these stories we can discern further questions, anomalies, and mysteries. By 'unpacking' these stories we can understand much more about the development of science in this country, we see deeper patterns, and yet more questions. We are creating space around the objects and the stories for the audience to weave their own curiosities.
Other General ThemesThe very enterprise of assembling the cabinet and its contents must necessarily comment on a number of more general themes, in particular:
Why do we collect? As a hobby, or as a business? For scientific
or aesthetic purposes? To record, explain and understand? Collecting
has had many meanings over the centuries, and Banks's journey
was positioned at an important point in this history. Collecting
was being transformed from a gentleman's diversion to a scientist's
practice. Systems of classification, such as the Linnaean system,
were being used to impose order and meaning on collections of
natural curiosities. Curiosities were becoming specimens.
When the British hunter of natural curiosities, Alfred Russell Wallace, was collecting in the Malay Archipelago in the 1850s, he found he could not give a convincing explanation to the Aru Islanders of why he collected shells, insects, birds and animals. He was 'set down as a conjurer and was unable to repel the charge'. The transformation from conjurer to scientist is one possible version of the modern history of collecting, one further tale of western triumph. It is an account of science prevailing over magic, of the emergence of sophisticated systems of classification and specialisation from the undiscriminating jumble of collectors' cabinets. The collector's object ceases to be just another curio and becomes, instead, a piece of evidence fully integrated in a western vision of natural and cultural development.With the rise of experimental science in the late 19th century, collecting received less emphasis and was often left to enthusiastic amateurs, such as the field naturalists. But in more recent times, the importance of cataloguing and monitoring the planet's biodiversity has become increasingly evident. Such 'collections' enable us to understand the breadth and complexity of our enviroment and to assess the consequences of our actions. They enable us to chart the limits, possibilities and dangers of humankind's interaction with nature.
Every collection tells a story. Even as we construct the Cabinet of Curiosities we must be aware that we are creating classifications, drawing patterns out of the chaos of the past, constructing narratives where none exist. We are inventing a taxonomy, a convenient fiction to aid analysis and encourage reflection. This is what history is - collections of 'facts' arranged in a cabinet called 'the past'.
Collections suppress their own historical, economic and political processes of production. Their sleight of hand is to allude to a relation between things that in social practice often have no relation. Anthropologist James Clifford has wondered about the social and psychological strategies of collection in the west, and urges a critical history of collecting. 'A history of anthropology and modern art', he writes, 'needs to see in collecting both a form of Western subjectivity and a changing set of powerful institutional practices.' Collecting is a 'crucial process of Western identity formation', 'an exercise in how to make the world one's own, to gather things around oneself tastefully, appropriately'. Collecting also assumes a certain notion of time; collectors are driven by urgency, by the need to collect 'before it is too late' - and we need to ask 'too late for what?' Their work is suffused with a sense of salvage, objects are rescued from out of time itself. Therefore, argues Clifford, 'collecting presupposes a story'. And the stories not only give meaning to the objects; they also ensnare the collectors.
Britain and AustraliaThe Cabinet of Curiosities is part of New Images, 'a year-long programme of events throughout 1997 to highlight the modern, evolving relationship between Britain and Australia', marking the fiftieth anniversary of the British Council in Australia.
The cabinet is to be presented to the Royal Society of London as a gift from the people of Australia, so clearly its focus must be on the scientific links between Britain and Australia. Indeed, it would be impossible to tell the story of Australia's scientific development without such a focus - such links are the story to a large extent.
Banks himself continued to direct research in Australia as President of the Royal Society and head of the Kew Gardens. Major British scientists such as Richard Owen, Roderick Murchison, the Hookers, and even Charles Darwin, had their networks of Australian collectors and correspondents. Australian scientific institutions looked to Britain for advice and direction. Australia's first crop of Professors were largely British, and when the locally-grown variety appeared, they had usually been trained in Britain. Collaboration has continued throughout the 20th century on a more equal footing, leading to such important developments as the establishment of the Anglo-Australian Telescope.
The relationship has not always worked in favour of Australia's scientific development. There have been conflicts and disputes, as well as success and co-operation. But in examining the 'modern, evolving relationship' between Britain and Australia, the Cabinet of Curiosities will remind us of the shared institutions, practices, and attitudes that provide a solid foundation for future growth and understanding.
Science and artArt and science were closely linked in Banks's time. Scientists 'deeply respected the artist's capacity to record the truth more fully and completely than words'. (Bernard Smith, Imagining the Pacific: In the Wake of the Cook Voyages, p. 28). In both disciplines there was a movement towards the 'accurate' representation of nature - the emphasis was on empirical study, eschewing fancies and interpretation. Was this achievable?
Naturalism, like idealism, is a conceptualising enterprise. In moving from the ideal theories of the academies towards the empirical standpoint of science, artists did not thereby achieve an unvarnished truthfulness of the eye; they exchanged one conceptual master for another.Although botanical artists still make an important contribution to science, other imaging techniques have taken their role. Truth now lies not in the artist's drawing, but in the inscriptions and outputs of all manner of scientific apparatus. Moreover, it is often claimed that a gulf has opened up between the arts and the sciences, that practitioners effectively inhabit 'two cultures'. Is this division merely rhetorical? Or does it represent fundamentally different ways of viewing and representing the world? If the latter, what sort of communication is possible across the divide? How can art represent the practice of science?
Section 1 - All things Queer and OppositeHow have scientists perceived Australia? Culture shapes our ways of seeing and understanding, thus science in Australia was long bound by Eurocentric expectations. But interaction with this new environment helped reshape these expectations, science itself grew and changed. What has been achieved by this process, and what remains undone?
Section 2 - Isolation and IndependenceThe development of Australian science is often portrayed as a march to independence - a triumphant victory over colonial mentalities, isolation and distance. But history is never quite that simple
Section 3 - The Handmaiden of EmpireThere were strong links between science and imperial expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries. For a scientist like Joseph Banks the close association of science and commerce would have seemed completely natural. Science in Australia has always been dependent upon social, economic and political developments, including war.
Phase 1 is near completion. Phase 2 has begun, with construction of the cabinet aimed to be completed by the end of January.
As described above, there are 9 exhibition spaces within the cabinet, however, one of the trays will remain empty (corresponding to story no. 4 - Silences). 8 artists will be selected to fill each of the remaining spaces. Each space will be associated with a particular story. Each artist will be given the dimensions of the space, a 500-1000 word treatment of the selected story, some additional references and, where appropriate, some related images. How they use the material, and represent the story within the space is totally up to them!
The concept developer, Tim Sherratt will be available to the artists throughout, to answer any questions, to provide further information, or to help locate images or materials.
Interpretative text will be developed for exhibition purposes. This will outline the themes and stories, and identify the artists. The text will be based on the story treatments distributed to the artists. Comments by the artists on their works can also be included.
A WWW site will be developed that includes images of the cabinet and its contents, detailed descriptions of the themes and stories, and notes on everyone involved in the project.
The Kaleidoscope of Life exhibition is being developed by the Natural History Museum, London, and the Australian Museum. It seeks to explain and demonstrate biodiversity. The planned exhibition already has a significant historical component. 'Discovering variety', one of the three main sections, aims to introduce biodiversity "by looking back at important naturalists in history who have contributed to recording the diversity of plant and animal species in the UK and Australia". Specific mention is made of Banks and the Endeavour voyage. The way in which the Cabinet of Curiosities will be incorporated into the exhibition is still being examined.
The Cabinet of Curiosities will tour around Australia with the Kaleidoscope of Life exhibition, after opening at the Australian Museum in June 1997. Dates and venues for the other capital cities are still being confirmed. The entire exhibition, including the cabinet, will then travel to the Natural History Museum, London.
Prepared by Tim Sherratt (Tim.Sherratt@asap.unimelb.edu.au)
for publication on ASAPWeb. Last modified 22 June 1997.