Object lessons: Recollecting museum histories at Michigan | Arts & Culture

Object lessons: Recollecting museum histories at Michigan

Object lessons: Recollecting museum histories at Michigan

"Object Lessons" activates the memory of the Ruthven museums building and richly illustrates U-M's lasting effort to build collections in support of its academic mission and for the public. Exhibition photo by Richard Barnes.  

ANN ARBOR—The history of the modern research university is unthinkable without collecting. At the University Michigan, the first objects brought to campus in the late 1830s included a piece of copper from the Upper Peninsula, bird skins, an Anishinaabe canoe and pressed plants.

Today’s collections encompass over 25 million specimens and artifacts. As the last exhibition before the closing of the U-M Museum of Natural History in the Ruthven Museums Building, Object Lessons: Recollecting Museum Histories at Michigan activates the memory of the museums building and richly illustrates U-M’s lasting effort to build collections in support of its academic mission and for the public.

"Object Lesson" is accompanied by a book co-edited by U-M professors Carla Sinopoli Kerstin Barndt. Exhibition photo by Richard Barnes.

“Object Lessons” is accompanied by a book co-edited by U-M professors Carla Sinopoli Kerstin Barndt. Exhibition photo by Richard Barnes.

Showcasing original objects dating from 1837 to the present, Object Lessons affords visitors a synthetic look at 200 years of collecting for science. Museum specimens, artifacts and documents from the archives bring into focus the University Museum’s importance to early state history, its first global collecting expeditions, the changing relationship between culture and nature, science and religion; and the transformation of research and collecting practices from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries.

Not all of U-M’s historical collections survive; the exhibition reflects this fact by focusing also on the life cycle of collections, on points of origin and decline, and on the shifting valorization of objects over time.

"Object Lessons," an exhibition about the history of U-M collecting, is on view from Oct. 13 to Dec. 30, 2017. Exhibition photo by Richard Barnes.

“Object Lessons,” an exhibition about the history of U-M collecting, is on view from Oct. 13 to Dec. 30, 2017. Exhibition photo by Richard Barnes.

Object Lessons draws on collections housed in the University’s research museums (Paleontology, Zoology and Anthropological Archeology), as well as the University Herbarium, the Museum of Natural History, the Stephen S. Clark Map Library, the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments, the Bentley Historical Library and the U-M Library.

The exhibition was curated by Kerstin Barndt in collaboration with Richard Barnes and Amanda Krugliak, with original commissioned artwork by Richard Barnes.

New York-based artist Richard Barnes’ photography and sculpture engages with specimens, taxidermy and tools from the collection. Staging these images and sculpture in today’s campus museum spaces, Barnes offers an aesthetic reflection of the histories on display. A recipient of the Rome Prize, Barnes has had solo exhibitions of his work at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, the Carpenter Center at Harvard University, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Cranbrook Art Museum, among others.

Kerstin Barndt is associate professor of German and museum studies at U-M where she teaches European and U.S. museum history and theory as well as twentieth and twenty-first century German literature and culture. Together with Carla Sinopoli, she co-edited the book Object Lessons and the Formation of Knowledge. The University of Michigan Museums, Libraries, and Collections 1817–2017.

A visual and performance artist, Amanda Krugliak serves as the art curator at the U-M Institute for the Humanities.

“It was very much a way to trace the history of the collections, the building and people in it—all an imprint with a nod to the future,” said Krugliak. “Curatorially, the herbarium prints became the emotional center of the show. Even though it was based on research, the herbarium prints captured the essence of the 19th century naturalist, that romanticism . . . in that sense, it felt like exhibition was as much about history and research as it was a love letter to the Ruthven building, like someone would find in a box.”

The project has received generous funding from the University of Michigan’s Bicentennial Office, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, U-M Office of Research, MCubed, the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, and the Museum of Natural History.


Object Lessons: Recollecting Museum Histories at Michigan 
is on view at the U-M Museum of Natural History Oct. 13–Dec. 30, 2017.