The ‘cabinet of curiosities’ is a presentation format from Renaissance Europe used by middle class and wealthy collectors to display odd or rare items. Such cabinets were quite performative, pre-science exhibits that anticipated museums. Often the objects displayed were subject to inquiry and debate, and many fields of social and natural science have genealogic ties to the culture that surrounded such displays.
The cabinet of curiosities format has been used by a number of communities to engage in debates about the Anthropocene, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, at the Rachel Carson Center, the Carnegie Museum of Art, and the Deutsches Museum. The Anthropocene is a term that designates a new geological era marked by significant human impacts on Earth’s geology and ecosystems. The term and its meaning have been the subject of lively debate across many scholarly fields in the last decade. Social science and humanities scholars have joined debates in various ways, including through the Anthropocene Curriculum and associated campuses, including the October 2017 Anthropocene Campus Philadelphia.
The ‘Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene’ follows from the fall campus and leads up to the Writing Slow Disaster in the Anthropocene workshop. All of the objects included were obtained in or have a connection to Philadelphia and the surrounding region.
Objects in curation:
Lead contaminated soil
Objects currently on display:
Scattered across beaches and repurposed for jewelry, sea glass is an object that reflects how ecosystems can transform material from human culture. Sea glass is produced when glass is tumbled in the ocean for thirty or more years, and sometimes requiring more than a century to take shape. The sea glass displayed in this exhibit was collected off the coast of Massachusetts and brought back in Philadelphia as a gift. Indeed, sea glass has become a kind of collectors item and is commonly used in jewelry. It’s unclear how long the glass shards displayed may have been ‘tumbled’ for — years or decades.
For more than a decade, scientists and publics have been concerned about honey bee populations. Colony collapse disorder has received a lot of media coverage but that isn’t the only threat to bee populations. Chemical exposure to insecticides and herbicides is an increasingly common cause of colony death. Take for example the pictured bee hive. The colony was cultivated in a Philadelphia suburb by an amateur bee keeper, but was killed in April 2017 when a landscaping company sprayed herbicide at an adjacent power station without assessing surrounding properties. The company had been hired by a local utility company to spray the pathway and entrance to the station to help reduce foliage for easier access. They were unaware of the nearby hive at the time. Residents, however, never received notice that the company would be spraying chemicals that would impact their properties. The bees died within days.
“The bees were probably dead within a day, but I noticed it on day two. Just dumb luck. I was out the day before they sprayed and noticed two days after they sprayed from the kitchen that I had no bees. Usually, I could see them coming back from the window and it looked quiet. I went out, and every single one was dead. Not even a straggler.”
As of March 2018, the hive infrastructure still sits in its original spot. These photos show decomposition of the bees and comb.
Computer technologies have enabled knowledge production in and about the Anthropocene, not the least of which is better information about climate change and shifting human-nonhuman relationships. Floppy disks are also an iconic example of obsolescence, a technology whose use was successfully designed out of most twenty-first century operations, save the few cases highlighted in this video on floppy disk recycling. Although floppy disks are no longer manufactured, there are floppy disk recycling companies, which are supported by business from organizations that continue to rely on older technology, including the U.S. government. Floppy disks simultaneously represent speed and design in computer technology, and can easily be used as an exemplar of the waste produced by human-machine cultures. Yet some of the earliest data on climate change was undoubtedly shared on these formats.
The pictured floppy disks were gifted to the exhibit from a large Philadelphia-based corporation where they had been in storage for an unknown number of years.