Brita Brenna: The Poetics of the Natural History Museum Around 1900
This project will analyze debates, conflicts and negotiations related to architecture and exhibition in Norwegian natural history museums during the decades around 1900. In addition to the international discourse on museum buildings, exhibition and collection technology will be included, particularly paying attention to how the Norwegian museums approach this discourse.
In 1899, Jørgen Brunchorst, botanist and director of Bergen Museum, wrote two articles for Naturen (Nature) magazine on the great natural history museums in Paris and London. The Paris museum had new buildings, but they were furnished in a style that did not fit the time. The natural history museum in London was, on the other hand, perhaps one of the world's best natural history museums, according to Brunchorst. First, it had implemented a clear separation between sections meant for the general public to view the exhibitions and sections for serious study. Second, the zoological department was divided into an educational collection, a British collection and a systematic collection. Into dissemination, natioinbuilding and research.
Brunchorst particularly appreciated the educational collection. "It is ... an illustrated textbook, and any student will when using it progress further in two weeks that when using a textbook and explanations for two semesters". The groups of British birds were also much praised. In the display cases, sand, stone, straw and trees had been collected from the original environments of the animals, often as authentic material. Into this setting whole families of birds had been placed in their natural environments. "Thus the genre picture is complete," Brunchorst writes. "Each group is a small work of art. There is just as much art in this as in the production of one of the paintings from the animal kingdom, only the means are different. But why should the designation of art be restricted to only those presentations that are made using a brush or modelling knife?". Through his articles Brunchorst in Naturen presented a new poetics for modern natural history exhibitions. What happened when these ideas were to be given practical designs?
This project will analyze debates, conflicts and negotiations related to architecture and exhibition in Norwegian natural history museums during the decades around1900. In addition to the international discourse on museum buildings, exhibition and collection technology will be included, particularly paying attention to how the Norwegian museums approach this discourse. The actual form and functioin of the museums will be studied, as far as they are documented, and analysed in relation to the preceding process.
- Which understandings of nature are being negotiated, and which social understandings?
- How do conflicts appear in the concrete building and exhibition discussions?
- Which aesthetic practices are appreciated as means of presenting good nature?
- Which practices are rejected?
- Who are the actors in the debates, and who manage to mobilize others behind their goals?
At the same time as the debates on new technical exhibition and architectonic frameworks in the natural history museums were going one, there was also a discussion on exhibition practices in the cultural history museums. Paradoxically it appears that the contextual framework, the diorama and the "genre picture", to use Brunchorst's term, became a privileged form in the natural history museums, while increasingly being designated as non-scientific in the cultural history museums. Dissemination, nationbuilding and research were to mean different things in the two types of institutions. The development in the natural historical museums is important comparative material.