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  • Un-Natural HistoriesThe Specimen as Site of Knowledge Production in Contemporary Art
  • Helen Gregory

One of the primary functions of natural history museums is the preservation and deployment of knowledge through collections of preserved specimens. Although natural in origin, these specimens betray the marks of the human hand through the processes of preservation and display, transforming objects of nature into objects of material culture. Given the challenges that arise from shifting definitions of what constitutes a natural history specimen in an age when life is being redefined and living matter is treated as a mutable and expressive substance, the author analyzes how contemporary artists have questioned how our perception of the “order of life” has been impacted in light of recent developments in genetic manipulation, tissue engineering and DNA taxonomy. In this discussion of the human impact on natural artifacts, the author includes art practices that borrow from museum technologies including taxidermy, wet preservation, field research and scientific illustration, as well as practices that employ biotechnology to investigate the shifting relationship between living organisms and taxonomy. By focusing on the hierarchical nature of knowledge in art and science, the changing use of language in classification, systems of preservation and display, and mutations and hybrid organisms, the author argues that natural history as a discipline acts as a mediating factor between the museum, on the one hand, and both scientific and art practices on the other. The specimen consequently functions as a site of knowledge production that merges both the museological impulses of preservation and display with the scientific/laboratory/art-based impulses of experimentation and alteration.

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Richard Pell, JAX lab mice at the Center for PostNatural History, taxidermy, 2012.

(© Richard Pell. Photo: H. Gregory.)

[End Page 532]

Helen Gregory
<>. PhD diss., University of Western Ontario, Canada, 2016.


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