Geological Collections as Material Culture

A review of The Uses, Meanings, and Values of Natural Objects: University Earth Science Objects and Collections as Material Culture, by Hannah-Lee Chalk.

As scholars sorted through the meaningful mess of biological and paleobiological collections over the last few years, they’ve “taken for granite,” as Hannah-Lee Chalk puts it, museums’ ubiquitous collections of earth science materials, dismissing them as too dull to bother with (p. 29). Chalk’s thoughtful dissertation on the geological collections of university museums may just reverse this trend. Chalk uses thing theory and ethnographic research in five institutions to demonstrate that earth science objects are by no means passive natural artifacts, but rather a form of material culture, as intentionally constructed and culturally complex as the gorillas and dinosaurs a few galleries over. Chronicling how and why earth science objects “come into being,” in Lorraine Daston’s words, how they are transformed into collections, how they function and how they circulate, Chalk’s theoretical and ethnographic study of earth science materials in the under-examined setting of the university museum offers an excellent counterpoint to familiar histories and theories based on more mutable museum collections (Lorraine Daston, “Introduction: The Coming into Being of Scientific Objects,” in Biographies of Scientific Objects.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000, pp. 1-14). And Chalk’s engaging prose will convince those who slept their way through middle school earth science that geological collections, too, are worthy subjects of study for those interested in materiality and museum practice.

Chalk begins her introductory chapter with a disquisition on the place of rocks and geology more broadly within the western cultural tradition. Her approach is almost Prownian as she discusses how the hardness, the immutability and the perceived stability of earth science materials may have forced scholars to dismiss them. She then sets the parameters for her project, offering definitions, justifications and some terrifically useful overviews of material culture theory. She asks if theoretical categories developed by Bruno Latour and other science studies scholars have validity in the context of earth science—can, for instance, rocks function as immutable mobiles or mobile proxies? Ultimately, she concludes that geological objects are hybrids, “neither genuinely natural, nor authentically constructed,” that have been displaced, transformed, and are often further refined to become the source of new specimens (p. 26). The creation of entirely new specimens from existing hybrids, she argues, begs new questions about the uses, meanings and cultural values of these materials in both museum and classroom settings.

Chalk’s second chapter explores the coming into being of earth science objects, “the transformation of pieces of nature into pieces of science” (p. 47). An excellent primer of geological practices for those with little knowledge of the field, the chapter details how geologists select and standardize rough rocks into scientific specimens and teaching tools. Materiality trumps scientific ideals in the creation of these specimens, she argues, explaining that climate and environment, the occurrence, distribution and appearance of earth science materials, and whether geologists and their teams can actually pry the thing out and carry it down the mountain before the storm hits, all influence the selection of geological samples. Recounting a project that intended to collect materials from the Swiss Alps to understand how seawater elements get down into the earth’s mantle, she describes the considerable challenges that shape what geologists ultimately gather. In this case, the samples were difficult to access—the team had to charter a helicopter to reach the site—and when they arrived, they found the garnet-studded rocks had already been hacked up by other scientists, making intact samples all the more difficult to obtain. Obtaining teaching objects is a slightly different process, she notes, but one that likewise illustrates an ongoing negotiation “between the collector—their expectations, requirements, strength, skill and judgment—and the object being collected—the surroundings, available tools, the weather, and numerous other factors” (p. 78). Chalk’s discussion is another useful addition to the mounting body of historical literature on the importance of materiality in the production of scientific materials.

She moves from field to lab, from baggie to database in the next chapter, investigating how scientific samples become collection objects. As she points out, the literature on scientific collecting and collection often explores historical practice, and those few scholars who have tackled the contemporary creation of collections have focused largely on ethnographic objects and collections, a category with its own special set of baggage. (See, for instance, Elizabeth Edwards, Chris Gosden & Ruth B. Phillips (eds.) Sensible Objects: Colonialism, Museums and Material Culture, Oxford: Berg, 2006; Samuel J.M.M. Alberti, Nature and Culture: Objects, Disciplines and the Manchester Museum, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009; Sarah Byrne, Anne Clarke, Rodney Harrison, & Robin Torrence, (eds.) Unpacking the Collection: Networks of Material and Social Agency in the Museum. New York: Springer, 2011). As Chalk describes how specimens are transformed into homogenous collections through numbering, prefixes and the nitty-gritty routines of collection management, she applies actor-network theory, arguing that collections aren’t what Latour would call “faithful intermediaries,” passively reflecting their contexts, but instead mediators that “transform, translate, distort and modify the meaning of the elements they are supposed to carry” (Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). She uses observations and interviews with those managing museum and departmental collections at the University of Manchester and other universities to argue that even geological collections, those ostensibly stable groupings, are inherently unstable, subject to individual whim, changing institutional needs, and evolving physical infrastructures (p. 115). Though geological collections may seem exceptional, Chalk argues that, in this way at least, they function much like other types of materials, and that collections ultimately cannot be separated from their curators (p. 114). As in any other kind of collection, “the us and the it slip-slide into each other” in geological collections, as Tony Bennett and Patrick Joyce put it (Tony Bennett and Patrick Joyce, ed. Material Powers: Cultural Studies, History and the Material Turn, New York: Routledge, 2010: p. 4).

Chapter 4 explores the use of earth science objects. Chalk’s contribution again lies in her exploration of a neglected realm of collection and museum history: the peculiar space of the university, where well-preserved collections are used for research and teaching, but are not given the same pride of place they might be in a civic museum. Chalk maps out five different scenarios in which university folks use geological collections: “‘show and tell’ (in which material is encountered at a distance), ‘surfaces to examine’ (where engagement is visual and tactile but restricted to superficial features), ‘samples to test’ (where visual and tactile engagement probes beneath the surface), ‘sets to interpret’ (where visual and engagement occur within the framework of problem based learning), and ‘objects to inspire’ (in which visual and tactile engagement are geared towards non-disciplinary interpretations)” (p. 120). She bases these categories on extensive interviews with professors and curators, describing at length the historical traditions and contemporary displays of the Sedgwick and Manchester museums, making plain just how different these museums are from their more popular civic counterparts.

She examines the mobility of earth science objects in chapter 5, effectively tying the previous three chapters together. Tracing “the various trajectories along which objects may circulate both formally and informally, temporarily and permanently, within institutions,” Chalk argues that mobility affects the meanings and, more unexpectedly, the physical integrity of geological collections. As earth science materials moves in and out of museums and classrooms, public displays and personal possession, it assumes new identities, many of them dictated, she argues, by the objects themselves. In this chapter, she again relies heavily interviews, observations and Latourian theory, exploring how “action is distributed among agents, very few of whom look like humans” (Latour 2005: 50). To point out how research and teaching functions influence mobility, she makes good use of case studies from the Cambridge, UCL and Manchester Museums, offering new confirmation of cultural anthropologist Annette Weiner’s assertion that symbolically dense objects circulate more slowly than those less freighted with historical, cultural and scientific meanings (Annette Weiner, “Cultural Difference and the Density of Objects,” American Ethnologist, 21 (2), 1994: 391-403). Irreplaceable scientific objects move gradually through various university spaces, Chalk suggests, while less valuable teaching specimens speed through the same contexts (pp. 190-191).

Chalk concludes by urging readers to be “mindful” of both the materiality and the culture surrounding earth science materials, rather than taking them “for granite” (p.198). She makes clear that, despite their weighty particularity, earth science objects are not exceptional. Rather, she convincingly argues, they largely fit within well-established tenets in scholarship on material culture and collecting more specifically. Despite all-too-frequent assumptions about their impervious nature, the biographies of geological objects are just as fraught as those of more obviously degradable materials. Earth science materials too are subject to the endless contest between scientific ideal and physical constraints, the “struggle with stuff,” to use her words (p. 200). Reiterating that “the effects and consequences of objects may be unpredictable and unexpected,” whether those objects are rock or rawhide, flesh or feather, Chalk’s engaging conclusion sets an effective stage for further inquiry into the historical and material trajectories of geological objects (p. 199).

Victoria Cain
Department of History
Northeastern University
v.cain@neu.edu

Primary Sources

The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences and the Department of Earth Sciences of the University of Cambridge.
School of Earth and Environment, The University of Leeds.
The Manchester Museum and the School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences, at the University of Manchester
Liverpool John Moores University, School of Natural Sciences and Psychology
University College London’s ‘Museums and Collections’ Service and the Department of Earth Sciences.

Dissertation Information

University of Manchester. 2012. 266 pp. Primary Advisors: Samuel Alberti, Nick Merriman, and Sharon Macdonald.

Image: Image of collector’s containers on display at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge.

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