What is the real, "real" object?

Ferdinand Bauer engraving


What is the real, "real" object?

PhD Student in the School of Computing and Information and Consuming Nature workshop participant

As an information scientist striving to define and describe online exhibitions, I am constantly reflecting on what constitutes a “real object” versus one that is acknowledged only through its absence. The status of the object has historically correlated to changes in museology, and in this regard it seems we are in the midst of a particularly challenging moment. With the proliferation of museum apps, for example, museum visitors are simultaneously engaging with site-specific media while also being pulled away from their actual physical or “real” surroundings.

In her writing, Andrea Witcomb suggests that objects in the material world carry “weight...authority, knowledge and privilege” whereas “multimedia,” or virtual objects, are characterized by their superficiality or otherness: their immediacy, temporariness, and popularity. (1) Traveling through and among the various institutions and collections that were included on the Consuming Nature workshop itinerary, I was constantly thinking about perceived distinctions between real and digital objects. Particularly as we hopped from the Hunt Library, with its exquisite engravings and ink drawings of botanical specimens, to the overgrown vacant lot of Carrie Furnaces, I thought about what distinguishes the real and the real object. This is a confusing and unhelpful qualification, but I have been trying to grapple with the levels of human intervention that are represented by or within any particular object, and how these levels contribute to notions of authoritativeness and authenticity.

Of course, these ruminations largely revolved around the figure of the “curator,” the individual traditionally endowed with the power to transform an ordinary object into an extraordinary one. At the core of curation likes the act of selection or “the crucial idea” that “turns a part of the natural world into an object and a museum piece.” (2) As an “object,” where does Ferdinand Bauer’s engraving of Pinus cembra (1803-1824) stand in relation to the wild grass growing in the garden next to an abandoned Pennsylvania steel mill Throughout the workshop, I found myself pondering the distinction between reality and fiction, or between data and capta. With regard to this latter element, I was thinking about data in the eighteenth century sense, as something that is given or assumed rather than something that is captured, or taken. At its conclusion, I think my brain had accepted that everything we saw during the workshop was the result of human intervention: from the alcohol-soaked beetles in the CMNH’s section of entomology to the errant trees growing atop a former furnace.

Should I be anxious about the way that museums incorporate real and fake representations of things? Probably not. Is it important to signpost these things, such as what parts of the dinosaur’s skeleton are actual fossils versus man-made plaster reproductions? For me, yes. Brenda Laurel, author of the book Computers as Theatre (1991), describes the artificiality of the computer interface as follows: “...in the world of interfaces, the graphic designer renders the objects (like zoom-boxes and pop-up menus)” and represents “both concrete and ephemeral aspects of context through the use of such elements as line, shadow, color, intensity, texture, and style.” (p. 10) In depicting nature, broadly, so many representations (2D and 3D, alike) provide a similarly mediated version of “reality.” As Colleen O’Reilly and I endeavor to describe and even re-contextualize the dioramas in CMNH’s Hall of Botany through our online exhibition project, these are some of the questions I continue to ask.

(1) Andrea Witcomb, “A New Approach to Thinking about the Impact of Multimedia in Museums,” in Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse, edited by Fiona Cameron and Sarah Kenderdine (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2007), 35.
(2) Susan Pearce, “Museum Objects,” in Interpreting Objects and Collections, edited by Susan M. Pearce (New York: Routledge, 2003) 10.  

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