New Encounters with the Victorian Natural History Collection . 2010

Museum of Natural History + Planetarium
Roger Williams Park • Providence, Rhode Island

November 6, 2010 through September 2011

Curated by Erik Carlson and Erica Carpenter

Drawing from over 250,000 rarely-seen items held in the Museum's vaults, six artists created new installations that bring the humanities and sciences together with the arts, offering a unique lens on the Victorian era’s obsession with natural studies and specimen collecting. Curiouser‘s innovative works invite viewers to look forward as well as back, exploring the ‘history of natural history’ while drawing connections with our own complex relationships with nature today.

Featuring New Work By:
- Alison Owen
- Susannah Strong
- Lasse Antonsen
- Jennifer Raimondi
- Erik Gould
- Adrianne Evans

Curiouser and curiouser!’ cried Alice

(she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).

Alice’s exclamation at the beginning of Alice in Wonderland sums up the Victorian perspective on the natural world. In the 19th century a new era of industry and scientific inquiry had begun, fueled on the one hand by the western world’s drive to exploit natural resources and on the other by the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. As the old frontiers went rolling back, the Victorians were dazzled by the fantastic array of exotic animals, insects, plants, fossils and fungi these explorations revealed. Academics and everyday people became avid collectors of natural specimens, gathering finds from abroad and from their own neighborhoods. For the Victorians, natural history was a passion, not just a pastime; it was pop culture.

Today it might be hard to fathom a pop phenomenon based on something so cerebral as the project of cataloging nature. But like Alice, whose bewilderment in Wonderland made her forget her good English, the Victorians’ passion for specimen collecting was led by sheer exuberance as much as intellect. The Museum’s vast collections from this era bear witness to their drive to gather, compare and report, filling drawer after drawer with carefully labeled specimens. In his essay on collecting, Walter Benjamin says ownership is the most intimate relationship we can have to objects; a visitor to the Museum’s vaults senses that these collectors were greatly moved by the beauty of what they found and the desire to draw it closer to them.

The same drives that gave the natural history movement so much vitality in the Victorian era can make it seem a bit macabre now: all those stuffed skins, all those dusty vials, all those glass eyes. Yet without the strange curiosity of the Victorian collectors we might be left with no markers of organisms now extinct, such as the passenger pigeon on view in the Natural Selections room. Today, as our planet’s biodiversity is threatened, these antique wonders acquire a new urgency. It’s time to give them another look.

This is where Curiouser begins — with the lively return of Victorian nature specimens to contemporary dialogue. The artists in this exhibit have taken on the project of freeing the Museum’s antique collections from their traditional context, finding in them voices that speak to a much different world than the one from which they were taken. While engaging the Museum’s own roots in Victorian nature-collecting, these pieces invite us down the rabbit-hole of artistic production, where we find ourselves in a Wonderland like Alice’s: a place where sense becomes strange, order becomes malleable, and odd juxtapositions train a new lens on the rules and workings of the waking world.

"Describing the Shadows" by Lasse Antonsen

"Comfort" by Jennifer Raimondi

"The Cabinet of Another Order" by Susanna Strong (detail)

"Describing the Shadows" by Lasse Antonsen

"Extinction" by Erik Gould

"exhaustive to Incomplete" by Alison Owen (detail)

"exhaustive to Incomplete" by Alison Owen (detail)

"Conversation" by Adrianne Evans

LINK to biographies and further reading > > > >

LINK to poster designed by Pippi Zornoza > > > >

LINK to archived materials > > > >

CURIOUSER was conceived and curated by Erik Carlson and Erica Carpenter, in conjunction with the Museum of Natural History. It was made possible through major funding support from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts and the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, an independent state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and by the City of Providence's Museum of Natural History.