Why creating a Museum of Anthropocene Technology?

(Translation of the paper: “Perchè un Museo delle Technologie dell’ Antropocene”, Frank Raes, 2019, in “GEOGRAFIA E ANTROPOCENE: Uomo, ambiente, educazione“, 2019, Ed. Cristiano Giorda. AMBIENTE SOCIETA’ TERRITORIO, Book series of the Italian Association of Geography Teachers.)


Why creating a museum in the first place?

Many books are written to try and explain things (objects, ideas, feelings, facts, …) and to understand something about their existence. At the Museum of Anthropocene Technology (note 1), we believe that a collection of things could be as effective as a book in achieving the goal of understanding things.

The linguist Noam Chomsky (2015) suggests that language did not evolve primarily to communicate but to think (note 2). That might well be so: while communicating by talking or writing is necessarily a linear process (words must be pronounced or written down necessarily one after the other), thinking is a much freer activity. In our heads words and half sentences can bounce around without a precise direction until, unexpectedly, they crystallize in an idea; an idea that can remain and be communicated or that, in most cases, dissolves again.

A museum relates to thinking as a book relates to communicating. In a museum, or in the catalogue of a museum, there is no order to begin with: order can come through arrangements and re-arrangements of the objects which can crystallize in schemes and structures leading to a better understanding or even to a new meaning. In a book there is order and a sense to begin with, which can be enriched by rewriting the book or writing another, but there is  also the risk to become more complicated and incoherent (note 3).

Hence, we propose the museum as an instrument to think, in which the objects are the words and half sentences and which can be continuously arranged and re-arranged. That work is usually up to the collector or owner of the museum, but it could easily be extended to the visitors of the museum. It could be a collective work that looks for a common awareness about the objects, the relationships with one another and with the visitor, and about them becoming things: collections as collectives, indeed.

According to Bruno Latour: “There is … a great interest in the way collections do collect, divulge, organize, in fact mix and remix things that were separated before. Having all the projects in the same room allows to make various connections. Here is what a collection allows us to do: Collecting elements allows people to collect their own thoughts” (Linke, 2015, p. 174).

In this paper we will try to develop these ideas, making use of the main text, notes (that must be read!), figures and their captions to try and escape the usual linear discourse.

Some historical and philosophical thoughts.

At the Museum we start with the observation that all institutions of Modernity (schools, museums, the sciences, the market, laws, constitutions, political parties. Ideologies, religions ...) try and describe our world as ordered and under control. At least they continuously propose ways to make it ordered and under control. In reality, it is clear that we live in a complex and chaotic world. This is not necessarily a negative or pessimistic way of seeing things. However it is clear that there are a growing number of issues, such as e.g. climate change, that no institution or discipline of Modernity (hence, neither science nor politics or religion) can manage on its own.

Also the concept of “Modernity” is complex: talking about Modernity, or modern history, or modern thinking or modern culture is not always the same. At school we learned that modern history starts with or around the discovery of America (1492) and ends with or around the French Revolution (1789). We were taught that it is above all the time of illuminism, based on the sciences and humanism. There exist however many interesting variations of this definition.

Authors like Pinker (2018) and Rosling et al. (2018) claim that with Modernity and its way of seeing the world the human condition has been improving up till today. For them Modernity is ongoing and because it is based on reason on science and illuminism it guarantees a continuing progress for humankind (note 4).

At the Museum we are inspired by French philosopher Bruno Latour and his tortuous critique of Modernity and the Moderns (De Vries, 2016). Latour makes the hypothesis that Modernity has only been a theoretical construct, and that in practice “we have never been modern” (Latour, 2009). He claims that this Modernity needs to be “reset” and put with its feet on the ground, in order to better tackle our collective problems (Latour, 2016; 2018). According to our understanding of Latour’s thinking, in our practical lives (but also in the professional lives of a scientist or a politician or a religious!) we keep producing complicated things and issues, hybrids, that only afterwards become rationalised and become pure objects and resolvable problems. However, this work of purification, which often happens with the help of numbers, graphics, statistics, is less and less able to clarify some of the collective and planetary issues, such as those linked to climate change and artificial intelligence (see note 11) which threatens humanity itself. According to Latour there is a need for another approach, another narrative, another culture.

The complexity of our times, the chaos, or in the words of Latour: the non-Modernity, is often compared with the one that reigned during the Renaissance; that long and tumultuous but also innovating period that was the transition between medieval and modern thinking. According to Goldin e Katurna (2016) we are in a second renaissance that is the transition between modern thinking and something that is still being defined. These authors suggest to take the (first) Renaissances as an example to manage todays risks, and invest, among others, in creativity (which is always present in moments of chaos), welcome genius and celebrate diversity. The only way out is the way through.

In the light of these historical and philosophical thoughts it is possible to give a first answer to the question raised in the title of this paper. As we will see, the collections of the Renaissance, the cabinets of wonder andWunderkammern did play a role in the transition from medieval to modern thinking. At the Museum we believe that a collection of things of our times can contribute to the definition of a new way of thinking, “[to] see and live the world in a different way and to better tackle the collective issues of the Anthropcene” (note 5).

Cabinets of Wonder during the Renaissance.

The Renaissance cannot just be seen as a period in which the artistic style changed or in which there was a renewed interest in the classics; that would be seeing only half of the (hi)story  (Sloterdijk, 2016). The Renaissance, especially the one in Europe during the 16th century, has been a time of political, social and religious upheaval. It was the century of war of succession, religious wars, the Reformation and Counterreformation, the Sack of Rome and other cities. Despite of all this, it has also been the century of wonder. The news and novelties that came were to Europe with the discoveries of the Americas stimulated and expanded the collective imagination. This general state of marvel made also possible the also re-emergence of the old esoteric arts such as astrology and alchemy (Weschler, 1995). These various strands of knowledge, old and new, mixed with one another and created a great intellectual confusion that went along with the political and religious confusion. A total chaos that dominated Europe for more than a century, but that was also a crucible of new ideas.

In this context, cabinets of wonder emerged throughout the continent, trying to absorb the chaos of old and new. They exhibited the most bizarre things: real and fake. The horn of a unicorn, for instance, was very much in demand. But, as if the horn was not enough, the catalogue of an English collection talks even about the tail (!) of a unicorn. The difference between reality and fantasy was really subtle.

While many of these collections nurtured the taste for the extra-ordinary and led to the cabinets of curiosities of the Baroque and beyond, others became instruments for research. In Italy, between Leonardo and Galileo, Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) of Bologna had a specific scope with his collection: he wanted to “systemize and recompose knowledge” through a “microscopic reconstruction of the macrocosm” (Tosi, 2005, p. 47) (note 6).

Apart of collecting and systemising thousands of objects, Aldrovandi also described each of them, including their history, with the aim to undo them from the myths, the superstitions, the useless metaphors and analogies with which they had been covered during the middle ages up till then. He described every thing to objectify it, to make of it an object.

A first division that seemed to work was the one between Naturalia and Artificialia: things made by Nature and things made by Man. Today, that might seem something very obvious to do. However, in those days, it was a radically new approach because it removed God as the origin and explanation of every thing, and, as such, threatened the joint power of Church and State.

The separation between Naturalia and Artificialia contributed to the evolution of Modern thought, in which that separation developed into divisions between, Object and Subject, between Facts and Values, Science&Technology at one side and Art, Politics, Religion at the other. An amalgam of dualisms that Bruno Latour (2009) called the “Modern Constitution” (Cat. Nr. 48).

According to Latour it might make sense to discuss the two elements of a single dualism. It is however un thinkable that all dualisms divide their elements along the same divide (see right panel in Cat. Nr. 48. Take the division between Science and Politics and the division between Facts and Values. At first sight these divisions run along the same divide, in the sense that science deals with facts such as gravity or climate, and politics with values such as liberty and democracy. That is how the Moderns like to see it: everything clean and clear. But in practice things are different: science does also study liberty and democracy and politics deals with facts, in the sense that it might accept or negate and often deride them according to their scope. Hence, in reality, the division between Science and Politics stand perpendicular on the division between Fact and Values. And in the same way all divisions of the Modern Constitution do not run parallel but cross one another in many different ways (see left panel in Cat. Nr. 48) and create again a chaos that, paradoxically, originates with the obsessive wish of the Moderns to separate and create order.

 

Have we ever been modern? Yes and no … 

From the 17th century onward, the Modern Constitution has structured our modern culture; the narrative with which we explain and justify the relationship among ourselves and with the rest of nature.

Modern culture is fundamentally based on a separation between Nature and Man. This narrative holds that Nature is infinite: it gives us unlimited resources and can absorb all the waste we produce. Nature is much bigger than us humans, we can do whatever we want and do not need to be concerned about Her. Nature is an immense décor that never changes, in front of which we play our human comedies and dramas (note 7). Modern culture is also based on the separation between Science and Politics. The scientific-technological apparatus produces knowledge and potential, but it is politics that decide how to use them.

This way of seeing the world and of organizing roles and powers has been useful to go beyond the confusion and desillusions of the Renaissance, generated by “faith, dogma, revelation, authority, charisma, mysticism, divination, visions, gutfeelings or the hermeneutic parsing of sacred text” (Pinker, 2018, p. 8). In this sense we have been modern. Society and the lives of individuals have been well organized, separating the various aspects. We have created institutions and constitutions to keep apart the various powers. We have promoted disciplines, schools, laboratories and specialized museums, to give room to particular ways of seeing the world.

It is undeniable that all this has improved the human condition (but only the human one …. note 8). But it is also true that we have done all this doing as if the problems between humans (!) which inevitably exist when dividing, organizing and institutionalizing do not exist. In reality, institutions exist because of continuous fights that are more or less hidden against those that would like to divide, organize and institutionalize things in a different way. Under the apparent order of our modern institutions their exists a complex and totally human reality (!) of intrigues, competition, negotiations, compromises and alliances. In fact, in the Modern Constitution there remained the old dualism of Us and Them as a justification of these fights.

There is another aspect of Modernity that is little or not discussed at all in the works of Pinker or Rosling but that is addressed, for instance, in the encyclical Laudatio Si’ of Pope Franciss (2015). By stressing and maintaining a theoretical division between Science and Politics, scientists have become very efficient because they don’t have to deal with the question whether their inventions are useful or needed for the wellbeing of  the collectivity. That is a question that politicians decide upon. In strong collusion with the world of production politicians promise growth and profit under the conditions that the scientific-technological apparatus keeps producing stuff for consumption. Again one does as if waste of people and products, the loss of social cohesion, the degradation of the natural environment, produced by that modern culture, itself degraded to consumerism, do not exist.

It becomes ever more visible and clear that the modern culture, e.g. the story we tell ourselves about the division between Nature and Man, between Science and Politics, does not longer fit with everyday’s reality (note 9).

In reality science and politics, but also law, religion, the arts … are ever more entangled, nearly in the same way as they were in pre-modern times. Whether we want it or not: scientists, politicians, lawmakers, artists … all depend, interact, and compete with one another and they have to deal with the same natural and artificial environment around them. They all have to deal with politics to secure funds, set up collaborations, etc., while politicians have to deal with problems brought to bear by science, religion and the arts and now have talks to scientists, religious leaders and artists.

The Modern Constitution  does not longer work. Instead of creating well defined objects, formulate illuminated thoughts or pose clear and answerable questions, we are creating complex things and issues such as health, cities, pollution, artificial intelligence, climate change, food security, migration, … These things and issues are neither natural nor artificial, neither scientific nor political. They are hybrids, in which nature and man, science and politics are intertwined, and which science and politics no longer manage to manage alone.

With Bruno Latour we can conclude that we have never been modern, or in any case, that it has become ever more difficult to be modern. It is therefore better give up rationalisations and purifications and reset Modernity to make it more concrete and down to earth (Latour, 2018).

 

The Anthropocene. 

We are in the Anthropocene: a new epoch in which, according to the observations and calculations of the scientists, the workings of man on Earth are as potent and incisive as the natural cataclysms of pre-history. We no longer have to wait for a meteoritic impact or a super volcano to see the creation of new geological layers. Atomic bombs has created a thin layer of artificial radioactivity around the globe, the massive use of carbon and oil a layer of black carbon, and recently we have added a layer of micro-plastics. We drastically change the surface of the Earth, we are the cause of global warming, we destroy plant and animal species at a rate that is at least as large as that during the pre-historic mass extinctions. We are the cataclysm. But it does not end here. The Earth is responding. It responds not because it is intelligent, but because it functions through cycles and feedbacks. It responds to pollution with the greenhouse effect, with the melting of glaciers and polar caps, with droughts and floods which can enhance or reduce the initial pollution.

With timothy Morton (2013) we can say that Man and Nature are moving each on a side of a Mobius strip; two sides that are in fact one.  The history of Man, unnoticeable on the geological clock (note 10), is now intertwined with the history of the Earth. Within the Earth System, humanity has become one of the feedbacks: it responds to the crises with conflicts amongst people but also with positive interventions and technical and social innovations. It is not clear yet if humanity can be a feedback that leads to control or a feedback that will lead to a planetary cataclysm as the final to the rapid ongoing changes. It is not clear whether here we will change by disaster, succumbing to climate change and loss of biodiversity or whether we will change by design, changing culture and imagining a new trajectory for us and the rest of nature. The Anthropocene is not only a new geological epoch, it is also a new cultural epoch (note 11). We are in a second Renaissance. We can make coincide the end of Modernity with the beginning of the Anthropocene, even though the exact data of this beginning is still under discussion (note 12)

 

The Museum of Anthropocene Technology. 

If the division between Nature and Man, between Naturalia and Artificialia has become counter-productive, what could be the new categories to manage things, issues, hybrids, chaos and the emergencies of today?

Can a collection of things still be an instrument to define new categories and better understand our times? Can cabinets of wonder and their catalogues (note 13) raise marvel and doubt and contribute to a new culture, with categories that are less theoretical and more terrestrial, more real and more shared. Can they help and create a culture that helps to manage our collective problems?

The Museum of Anthropocene Technology (MAT) (note 14) has been created with the scope to experiment and respond to these questions. In the tradition of Ulisse Aldrovandi, the Museum tries to “systemise and recompose knowledge” and to ” describe of each object their history”.

At the moment of writing, the collection of the MAT holds, among other things, a work that sheds light on an a incandescent lamp, a photograph printed with the atmospheric pollution that the photograph shows, a pair of glasses, an ampule with radioactive soil from Chernobyl, a copy of a Turner painting, Tintin’s rocket, a photograph of the MAT collection, art books, a molecule of glucose magnified a billion times, coal, an artificial tissue made by bacteria, electric monsters, a layer of plastic squeezed between layers of calcium carbonate from the Triassic, geographical and geological maps, various Bialetti coffee pots, found documents, a cage filled with dead birds (made of paper), an art work by Jan De Cock (on loan), a distillation column, …

Every thing, every installation is described. Aldrovandi described his things to undo them from myths and superstitions and to make them objects. At the Museum we describe objects to render visible the thing around the object, the invisible relations with nature and culture, so that they can be keys to unlock a better understanding of the Anthropocene.

 

Examples from the Museum’s Catalogue.

Cat. Nr. 2. A pair of glasses designed in Italy, produced in China and sold in Italy.

Cat. Nr. 3. A photograph of air pollution printed with the very air pollution sampled on the day the photo was taken.

Cat. Nr. 8. Pieces of wood 300 Mio years old.

Cat. Nr. 9. Tintin's rocket.

Cat. Nr. 19. EUDOSSIA, a city imagined by Italo Calvino.

Cat. Nr. 14. Soil from near Chernobyl, contaminated with Cs-137 and other radionuclides.

Cat. Nr. 22. Looking inside.


Conclusion: Cat. Nr. 46. Found Document #I. 

If the things of our world and universe can no longer be divided in “naturalia” and “artificialia”, since every thing has become a bit of natural and artificial at the same time, there is a need for new categories. It is the acceptance of such new categories that will bring us beyond Modernity.

The Museum makes the hypotheses that the words in the document shown in Figure 3 (note 15) could be these new categories: Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, Multiplicity and Consistency.   Discussion with a young visitor at the Museum clarified that these categories should not be seen as boxes in which to put light things, quick things, etc., but rather as ways of looking at our world. Looking lightly following the weightless trajectories of light. Looking quickly as every thing is rapidly changing. Looking accurately because even things should be exactly described. Looking to see and render visible. Looking at the complexity of ever thing and everything. Looking and making consistent the different ways of looking and what is being seen: looking to make sense.  

As written elsewhere, the Museum wants to be an instrument for looking and making sense.  

 

 

Notes.

 

1. The Museum of Anthropocene Technology (MAT), Laveno Mombello, Italia (www.museumodanthropocenetechnology.org

2. Chomsky says: “It seems that language evolved and is designed as a mode of creating and interpreting thought; it is a system of thought basically. It can be used to communicate: but everything people do can be used to communicate: you can communicate by your hairstyle, your style of walking and yes, also language can be used to communicate, but it doesn’t seem to be part of its design. Its design seems to be radically different and in fact even seems to undermine communication “ 

3. In a book or in a presentation words have a precise position that determines the meaning of the discourse. It is true that an author can rewrite his or her book or write another book to experiment with other meanings. There is however a risk that, after having communicated to many meanings in too many ways, the author is seen as incoherent. Poetry is maybe a way out of this problem. Lists, such as the lists in catalogues of museums, could be another solution. Umberto Eco, in his book “The Infinity of Lists” (2009), proposes the list as a literary form, different from prose and poetry. For Eco: “the list or directory or catalogue […] is typical of primitive cultures that still have an imprecise view of the universe and that limit themselves to sum up the various things and properties they are able to give a name to, without trying to set up hierarchical relations”. Eco doesn’t seem to see the possibility of changing the elements of the list (precisely because there is no hierarchical order) in order to find new relationships and interpretations.  

4. It would be wrong however to interpret these authors as if everything is OK and we can keep doing and living the way we have done during the past centuries. It is true that in many areas the human condition has definitely improved, but it is also true that the conditions for animals, tropical forests, biodiversity in general have deteriorated! Another reason not to keep progressing on the same path is that there are now, and for the first time, two changes ongoing that might be destructive for humanity itself. The first is climate change, which shows that humankind has obtained the capacity to change things at a planetary scale. For that reason it has been suggested to call our epoch the Anthropocene (Crutzen, 2002). The second is the evolution of information and communication technologies which, with Artificial Intelligence, threatens the primacy of humans oin  having self-consciousness and reason (Floridi, 2014). These two changes are challenging and putting into doubt our human identity, our relationship with nature, and the very concepts of “nature” and “humanity”. These changes challenge the narrative of Modernity, which, as is explained in the main text, is still fundamentally based on the separation of Nature and Man.  

5. www.museumofanthropocenetechnology.org 

6. Recompose also means literally making new compositions: on one occasion stones were shown together with stones and animals with animals, while on another occasion spherical things were put with spherical things and long  things with long things, etc.. One can easily imagine Aldrovandi and his assistants busy placing and replacing their many objects, experimenting with small exhibits until “things fell in place” and some deeper connection between objects was found. 

7. In the winter of 2019, the year in which this text is written, various car manufacturers were still presenting the new models in front of snowy white mountains and glaciers as if driving cars had not the slightest impact for these natural landscapes.  

8. Let us not forget how in the most advanced parts of the world animals are treated badly, to say the least, in automated, hygienic and, above all, highly efficient slaughterhouses. 

9. Referring to note 7. The reality is not to be able to drive cars in the high mountains. The reality is that cars emit greenhouse gasses, which warm the Planet, which melt glaciers, increase the frequency of floods, which wipe cars from the streets. A cynic might say that this is at least a negative feedback and that the system controls itself. More seriously, it is clear that our activities are more and more linked to nature through auto-destructive cycles (in which “auto” not only refers to cars …). 

10. Let’s recall that the Earth is 4,5 billion years old, and that Life originated 3,8 billion years ago. “Only” 600 million years ago Life could migrate from the oceans to land, where it exploded in plants and animals of all sizes and colours. The geological layers tell us about 5 major mass extinctions during these past 600 million years. They were caused by natural cataclysms: volcanic eruptions, meteoritic impacts and climatic changes that resulted from these cataclysms. These extinctions delineate the geological eras. The first hominids arrived 7 million years ago. Homo Sapiens 200.000 years ago. If 12 hours on a clock would represent 600 million years, we arrive only during the last 14 seconds, and we remain an irrelevant species for the Earth, until the beginning of the Anthropocene. 

11.The revolution that started with the ecological and social crises and that is linked to the relationship Man/Nature, coincides with the revolution of ICT and Artificial Intelligence (see Nota 4), which is linked to the relationship Man/Machine. This is not a coincidence. Both are products of the scientific/technological apparatus which, according to modern thinking, is free from ethical or moral considerations and which is therefore extremely efficient. How or if these two revolutions will come together in a single and new culture is probably the most important question to ask if we care about the future of Homo Sapiens. Will Homo Sapiens diversify into two species, one that lives again in syntony with nature, and another which is augmented by technology to the point of not needing nature anymore? Or is there still the possibility that Homo Sapiens will indeed be “sapiens” and find again a syntony with nature with the help of his technology.  

12. Scientists seem to converge on the period after the Second World War, which they call the “Great Acceleration”: that of the global economy and its effect on the global environment. A more precise date has also been advanced: July 16th, at 5:29 am, the moment of the explosion of the first atomic bomb the desert in New Mexico, USA. 

13. Umberto Eco (see note 3) maintains that the list (or the directory or catalogue) is “typical of primitive cultures that still have an imprecise view of the universe”. Maybe we are no longer primitives, but we find ourselves again in a chaos of things with the desire for new ideas and understandings.  

14. The name “Museum of Anthropocene Technology” is a reference but also reverence to “The Museum of Jurassic Technology” (www.mjt.org), a small museum in Culver City, California which has been called a through heir of the cabinet of wonders of the 16th century. (Wechsler, 1995). 

15. The document was found in the library of the monastery S. Maria di Finalpo (Liguria, IT) among leaflets, papers and magazines that were ready to be shipped to a recycling facility. It is most probably a copy or a copy of a copy of the original. Research by the Museum has linked the document to the Italian author Italo Calvino (1923 – 1985): Calvino used the six words as titles for six lessons that he was invited to give at Harvard University in 1984. The link with Calvino has been confirmed by the finding that in one printed edition of these lessons (Calvino, 1985) a black and white copy of a sheet of paper with the same list of words in the same handwriting is presented.

There is still a small chance that the document held by the Museum is the original. Further research will have to shed light on this.

References. 

CALVINO I. (1985), Lezioni Americane, Garzanti Editore spa, Milano.

CHOMSKY N. (2015), Languange and Thought,  Chomsky’s  Philsophy, Youtube.

CRUTZEN P. (2002), Geology of Mankind, Nature Vol.415, p. 23.

DE VRIES G. (2016), Bruno Latour, Polity Press, Cambridge MA.

ECO U. (2008), Vertigine della lista, Bompiani, Milano.

FLORIDI L. (2014), The 4th Revolution, how the infosphere is reshaping human reality, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

GOLDIN I. and KUTARNA C. (2016), Age of Discovery, navigating the risks and rewards of our new renaissance, St. Martin’s Press, New York.

LATOUR B. (1991), Nous n’avons jamais été modernes. Versione italiana (2009), Non siamo mai stati moderni, Elèuthera, Milano.

LATOUR B. (2016) Reset | Modernity!, ZKM, Karlsruhe and MIT Press, Cambridge MA.

LATOUR B. (2018), Down to Earth, politics in the new climate regime, Polity Press, Cambridge, MA.

LINKE A. (2015), L’apparenza di ciò che non si vede, Silvana Editoriale, Cinisello Balsamo.

MORTON T. (2013), Hyperobjects: philosophy and ecology after the end of the world, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

PAPA FRANCESCO (2015), Ladatio Sì, lettera enciclica sulla cura della casa comune. Centro Ambrosiano, ITL srl, Milano

PINKER S. (2018), Enlightment Now, the case for reason, science, humanism and progress, Viking, New York.

ROSLING H., ROSLING O., ROSLING-RöNNLUND A. (2018), Factfulness: ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think. Flatiron Books, New York.

SLOTERDIJK P. (2016), Wat gebeurde er in de 20e eeuw? Boom uitgevers, Amsterdam.

TOSI A. (2005), Wunderkammer vs. Museum? natural history and collecting during the renaissance, in BERETTA M., From Private to Public, natural collections and museums, Science History Publications, Sagamore Beach, MA.

WESCHLER L. (1995), Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Random House, New York.