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Glass Cases, White Spaces: A peek inside the University's public museums

Hannah Chin/Daily
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By Jennifer Xu, Senior Arts Editor
Published September 26, 2011

Museum. The word stands calcified as soon as it leaves your lips, like Grecian columns with straight-backed arches and gilded chandeliers slinking along the walls of the Louvre and the Hermitage. It suggests impenetrability. A slight, sneering inaccessibility.

Behind the exhibit is a sea of sterile white. Objects and viewers are divided by glass. Museums make us uncomfortable, forcing us to reconcile with the fact that the things we have created can have a standing life much, much longer than the human race does.

Perspective plays a large role in creating these biases, whether they're from a terrible childhood vacation or a grouchy curator screaming at you to stay at least 10 feet away from the exhibit. But museums are organic, living, changing institutions. And each of the seven public museums at the University — the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, the University of Michigan Museum of Art, the Sindecuse Museum of Dentistry, the Exhibit Museum of Natural History, the Matthaei Botanical Gardens, the Nichols Arboretum and the Detroit Observatory — challenges this definition in several ways. Ultimately, these establishments merely act as tools of our self-signification, and what a museum has to present has more to do with what society expects from it than what it expects of society.

The age of collecting

Though the relationship between people and things has existed since the beginning of time, the 18th-century aesthetic of curatorial thought was what gave rise to the modern museum. The artists and painters of the Age of Exploration viewed the way their minds worked very much like the collections they maintained — fabulous collections that ranged from rare butterflies to old coins, botanical specimens to “suckling pigs” (as Foucault introduced in his preface to “The Order of Things”) — and ascribed a separate meaning to the items they assembled and took out of circulation. These collections were eventually displayed to the public and deemed “cabinets of curiosity.”

“You have people traveling all over the world, things coming to Europe, things people had never seen before,” said Prof. Ray Silverman, director of the Museum Studies program at the University. “And people admiring them and putting them into these rooms — jam-packed, creating these incredible spectacles.”

Context, the cloud of classification that surrounds an object and influences people’s expectations of it, evolved a little later. Darwin and his contemporaries ushered in the Age of Reason and influenced its corresponding practices: grouping the objects into taxonomies, being preoccupied with authenticity and guaranteeing that one object could be representative of the whole — among others.

The University’s Exhibit Museum of Natural History stands as testament to these 19th century ideals — the skeleton of an ancient sea creature hanging tenuously off the ceiling, chasing its prey; a magnificent diorama of a reptile-like animal prowling the lands; a display case crowded with specimens taken directly off the pages of Audubon’s “Birds of America.” Director of Education Kira Berman refers to the museum’s organization as a “great chain of being,” with the primordial trilobites at the bottom of the chain and the Planetarium and space-age discoveries peering benevolently from the top.

At the entrance of the museum’s Hall of Evolution sits a massive hunk of petrified wood, one of Berman’s favorite objects in the building.

“We use it to talk about the process of fossilization,” she said. “How water carries the minerals into the tissue of the tree while the tissue is still there, fills into the interstitial spaces and then eventually the wood itself rots away — leaving only the minerals.”

Of course, not all object collections consist of decayed skeletons and hollowed-out rocks. At the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and the Nichols Arboretum, the living and blooming flowers, fruits and vegetables take center stage.