Nowadays a very effective way of understanding and calling attention to some absurdities happening in our world is to address them with a hint of sarcasm. That is precisely the way the “Natural History Museum”, their project, was idealized. Co-founder Beka Economopoulos shared with the audience how this project came to be, and some of the actions performed over the last few years. The museum’s “Trojan Horse” strategy is not only an approach to surprise the “enemy”, but to recognize that once being an insider, there is space for conversation.
The Natural History Museum works both as a concept and a practice. Its pop-up format allows mobility and efficient action. It represents the intersection between arts, activism, science, and creativity. Economopoulos’s humorous descriptions of how the museum physically came to be, buying taxidermies from eBay, taking background pictures from existing museums, etc. address a strong criticism to existing institutions, but also draw a plan for action. As the co-founder of the museum explained, this project similarly to other museums deal with events, exhibitions, tours amongst other activities, but at the same time, it also highlights the social and political discourse that museums often leave out.
Economopoulos recognizes museum spaces as very influential. Focusing on Science Museums, she notes how they mediate the audience’s contact with the natural world. With that, the Natural History Museum mission is clear: to state the truth of science. Of course, as pointed out by the end of the lecture, we recognize that there is not just one “truth” when it comes to science. What the museum advocates for is clarity and dialogue, and that the “truth” does not have (or should not have) a hidden agenda. To illustrate this idea, Economopoulos presented some of their actions such as their shout-out to museums to cut ties with fossil fuel donors. Ambiguities and contradictions in natural history museums are constant, and although sometimes evident or more obvious to viewers, they are also often hidden within the institution’s internal affairs. How can an educational space that deals with the preservation of the natural world be founded and run by people with quite the opposite mindset of what that institution supposedly advocates for? That’s when the activist work needs to intervene.
“Museums need to be the agents for change”, advocated Economopoulos. The Museum of Natural History seconds that. The Museum’s co-founder also shared that they have learned to embrace a position that would not just point fingers, but get to understand the problems from the inside, building partnerships and collaborations that proved to be very productive from both ends. In response to Economopoulos’s presentation, Dan Kammen, professor of energy at UC Berkeley, also added to the conversation discussions on the current threats scientific research is facing in the current administration. Kammen sees the “Trojan Horse” strategy as an actual possibility for change, and how museum education can eventually lead to new policies to be created. “There is a need to think about the museums as living things”, Kammen pointed out advocating that institutional criticism helps us see those places not as monolithic things, but spaces for change.
Laura Belik (PhD Student, Architecture) reviewed the February 26th talk, The Natural History Museum and the Future of Nature with Beka Economopoulos and Dan Kammen, as part of the Spring 2018 Arts + Design Mondays @ BAMPFA series. To learn more about the series, see below:
What is the role of public assembly in our current moment? And to what degree are new models necessary to respond artistically and technologically to our political climate? After a highly successful launch of Arts + Design Mondays @ BAMPFA in Spring 2017, Berkeley Arts + Design is pleased to present a new suite of exciting lectures that explore the theme of “public (re) assembly” from a variety of perspectives. The word assembly carries a range of associations. It challenges us to think about the democratic right to assemble; it recalls the artistic history of assemblage. It provokes us to imagine new systems of arrangement that respond to a digital age. It asks to consider how UC Berkeley might re-imagine the “school assembly” as a site of social transformation. Learn more here.