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The Anthropocene as a History of Technology
Welcome to the Anthropocene: The Earth in Our Hands, Deutsches Museum, Munich

Willkommen im AnthropozänWelcome to the Anthropocene. This message greets the visitor to this Deutsches Museum special exhibit that opened on 5 December 2014. The Anthropocene is one of the prominent concepts of our time, positing an Age of Humans during which Earth has been irrevocably changed by human ways of consuming and modifying the environment. The term “Anthropocene” was popularized by Paul Crutzen, a Dutch Nobel laureate in chemistry. The freshwater biologist Eugene Stoermer (1934–2012) had used the term “Anthropocene” since the early 1980s, and together they wrote an article in 2000. Crutzen and Stoermer argued that there is something going on with the planet that calls for a new terminology—the current geological epoch, the Holocene, was no longer sufficient. They saw the realization of this new epoch as a call for the “research and engineering community” to “guide mankind towards global, sustainable, environmental management.”1

Although Crutzen and Stoermer situated the Anthropocene as a geological epoch—something visible in the geological record of the planet—the Anthropocene is often invoked when discussing climate change and other environmental modifications.2 An International Union of Geological Sciences special working group is currently determining if there is sufficient scientific evidence to establish an official new geologic epoch. It is a hotly contested thesis, however, raising concerns about not only the dating of geological time periods but also about the politics and power structures [End Page 231] in the world today. Whose responsibility is the environmental state of the planet? The causes and consequences of the Anthropocene are not evenly distributed.

Technology is the linchpin in the Anthropocene as an idea. Crutzen argued that James Watt’s design of the steam engine can be seen as the beginning of the Anthropocene—in other words, making it a story of the Industrial Revolution.3 A more recent attempt at dating the Anthropocene places the starting point at the dawn of the nuclear age, making the Trinity nuclear test explosion on 16 July 1945 a historical turning point.4 Still others trace the Anthropocene back to the beginnings of agriculture as a fundamentally technological way of interacting with and modifying nature.5

The Welcome to the Anthropocene exhibit is one of the most extensive attempts to date to bring the history of science and technology in dialogue with the Anthropocene thesis. The Deutsches Museum is a venerable institution in the field of history of technology and is well placed for such an intervention in the debate over the Anthropocene. The museum is one of the founding partners of the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, together with Ludwig-Maximilian University. There was considerable cross-fertilization of ideas between the two institutions when developing the exhibition, as is evidenced in the exhibit catalog and essays.

The exhibit reflects the pervasiveness of the Anthropocene in all aspects of life. It is a relatively compact exhibit, covering 1,400 square meters, yet it manages to encompass a wide range of topics in its six thematic “islands”: Urbanization, Mobility, Humans and Machines, Nature, Food, and Evolution. This selection works fairly well, though there are topics not covered by the islands, including the obvious Anthropocene elephant in the room, climate change. The island “Nature” is somewhat problematic because in naming it so, there is a claim being made that the other islands are, perhaps, not nature. Yet as both environmental historians and historians of technology, we see nature and technology intertwined in all the islands.

In addition to the physical exhibit, there is a companion website, a virtual exhibition as part of the Environment & Society Portal, a comic book, and a catalog with essays in both German and English.6 Some objects on permanent display in the museum have been virtually linked to the exhibit through thirty eight-panel comic strips with accompanying mini-essays rather than moved into the temporary space. The exhibit physically closes on 31 January 2016, but it will live on in digital form.

As visitors first enter the exhibit hall, they are faced with a cube covered in digital screens. These screens display maps and videos that in one way or another visualize the human impact on the planetary environment. [End Page 232] Snaking around this cube is a stylized flower bed with paper flowers contributed by visitors, who are encouraged to write down ideas, hopes, and fears about the Anthropocene. These flowers are periodically collected and published in small booklets, both in print and online. It was intended that this would be the last thing that a visitor does in the exhibit, according to the designers, but the layout and scripting of the exhibit does not make that clear.7 This is the central participatory moment in the exhibit, asking visitors to contribute to the exhibit and its digital afterlife.

Fig 1. Section of the object wall showing the cut-out cardboard construction and a ca. 1850 steam engine in the Welcome to the Anthropocene exhibit, Deutsches Museum.<br/><br/>(Source: Photograph by Dolly Jørgensen.)
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Fig 1.

Section of the object wall showing the cut-out cardboard construction and a ca. 1850 steam engine in the Welcome to the Anthropocene exhibit, Deutsches Museum.

(Source: Photograph by Dolly Jørgensen.)

Behind this entry hall stands a large “object wall” made of cardboard cutouts embedded with technological objects (fig. 1). Here, the exhibit explicitly connects the museum’s collections with the Anthropocene. The technologies chosen have to carry the weight of the whole Age of Humans on their backs. They become representatives for large-scale processes of change that are certainly intertwined with the history of these objects, but they can be hard to isolate as sources of influence. The technological artifacts in the wall are exactly what you might expect to see at a museum of technology. There are the power and energy technologies such as a steam [End Page 233] engine, a lightbulb, and electrical appliances. There are transportation technologies—car, airplane, tanker ship, and locomotive. There are modern media technologies like the TV, telegraph, computer, and satellite. The technologies draw an image of an interconnected world, yet one in which technology serves to disconnect human lives from the cycles of the natural world. They are all post–Industrial Revolution technologies, showing the influence of the Crutzen school of thought on the definition of the epoch. In this way, the museum is reinterpreting their old objects under the new framework of the Anthropocene.

Beyond the object wall, the largest section of the exhibit features the six islands. Each of these defined spaces has a unique thematic focus as well as its own visual and material identity. On the Mobility island, for example, the idea of motion is manifested both in a moving carousel of invasive species under glass domes and a display of one of the few surviving Wardian cases, a portable greenhouse invented in 1829 that made it possible to ship live plants across the world. The selection of the objects on the islands is wide and various: from roofing tile fragments from Hiroshima after the nuclear bombing on the Humans and Machines island to a leaky water pipe from 1820s New York City on the Urbanization island to a DDT spray canister on the Nature island.

Yet the exhibit also reminds us that technology is more than objects—it can also be processes. The Food island features the Haber-Bosch process for artificial nitrogen fixation to produce ammonia, which can be used both as agricultural fertilizer and in explosives. The Urbanization island introduces waste management processes, particularly recycling and upcycling.

The exhibit also stresses the pace of technological innovation and industrial development, linking them to the speed of environmental change. More than anything, the exhibit is a visualization of the rapid and technologically enabled spread of humanity across the planet and the ways in which other species on the planet have responded to humanity. Directed and unintentional evolution, invasive species, and mass extinction all appear. Technology and animal life is closely connected, which we can see in the GPS-equipped northern bald ibis displayed in the exhibit. There is certainly still nature in the Anthropocene, but it is a new nature, often strange and uncomfortable and not fitting into the old categories of nature versus culture.

The model of the Clock of the Long Now at the far end of the room brings the issue of speed full circle. As a human-made artifact and art installation, the Clock of the Long Now is designed to function for ten thousand years without maintenance, challenging the increasingly accelerated time-scales of the modern world. The artifacts on display force us to think beyond the individual and even beyond the current idea of civilization—indeed, to consider the relationship between the myriad brief lives of humanity and the slow unfolding of geologic time. The Long Now Foundation, [End Page 234] which is currently constructing the clock, aims to promote long-term thinking and multigenerational environmental planning.

Fig 2. View of the Nature island with the satellite imagery art on the left in the Welcome to the Anthropocene exhibit, Deutsches Museum.<br/><br/>(Source: Photograph by Dolly Jørgensen.)
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Fig 2.

View of the Nature island with the satellite imagery art on the left in the Welcome to the Anthropocene exhibit, Deutsches Museum.

(Source: Photograph by Dolly Jørgensen.)

The tight integration of contemporary art like the Clock of the Long Now in the exhibit is refreshing for a traditional history of technology venue. An impressive crocheted coral reef collaborative art project from Museum Kunst der Westküste is another striking example, as is the hanging e-waste above the Humans and Machines island. Sublime technological landscape satellite imagery framed and displayed as art is yet another, asking us to “see the Earth with new eyes.” Fictional objects such as Razorius Gilletus imagined by Koert van Mensvoort and the Future Fossils made by London artist Yesenia Thibault-Picazo make us question the possible futures of the Anthropocene. The islands feature other potential futures as well, from in-vitro meat as a food of the future to robots in control of Earth. In these choices, the curators revealed a tendency to focus on technological solutions to the Anthropocene since it is being presented as a technologically created problem (fig. 2).

As the visitor leaves the islands to return to the starting point, the back of the object wall is filled with quotes and drawings of past technological visions. Some show that the technological imagination can be wrong, such as Bill Gates’s supposed statement from 1981 that 640kb “ought to be enough for anybody” and the 1932 Atlantropa plan to dam the Mediterranean [End Page 235] across the Strait of Gibraltar. Other visionaries such as the journalist Robert Sloss who in 1910 predicted wireless pocket telephones for everyone have proved right on target. It is a reminder that the visions of the future presented on the islands may fall in either category.

In exiting through the cardboard gateway, the visitor is once again among the field of paper flowers, an apt metaphor for the hybrid nature-technology of the Anthropocene. Here the visitor can share hopes or fears engendered by the island explorations. Because they have chosen flowers as the motif, there is a feeling of hopefulness, that something (humanity? nature?) will bloom in the Anthropocene.

The Anthropocene is complex because it is everything human and everything becomes human. This poses a challenge for any curator daring to take on the topic. The Deutsches Museum has chosen to show an Anthropocene infused by technology because it is a history of technology museum. The choice makes sense. Technology has played a key role in the Anthropocene idea from the very beginning, when Crutzen and Stoermer tied the epoch to the steam engine and the Industrial Revolution and also called for the engineering community to come up with solutions. Yet the Anthropocene idea has prompted many scholars and activists to point out the radical environmental injustice of the epoch and to critique the capitalism that has led to it.8 We see neither in this exhibit. Instead, it offers a relatively benign vision of a changing planet. The change is not pictured as threatening, in spite of being rapid. The exhibit says Welcome to the Anthropocene, not Goodbye to the World You Knew.

Finn Arne Jørgensen

Finn Arne Jørgensen is associate professor of the history of technology and environment at Umeå University, Sweden.

Dolly Jørgensen

Dolly Jørgensen is associate professor of the history of technology and environment at Luleå University of Technology, Sweden.


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7. Dolly Jørgensen visited the exhibit over the opening weekend with guidance from curators Helmuth Trischler and Nina Möllers, who discussed the flowers as the last thing. Finn Arne Jørgensen visited the exhibit alone in June 2015 and was naturally drawn to the flowers as part of the multimedia opening.