There are many ways that you can define the differences between a natural history museum and other museum types.  When I consider the differences I see, I consider how this particular kind of museum is received, the history of some of its practices and the lens from which the collections can be/are viewed.

As noted in one of our readings, a natural history museum can be in a sense a “dead zoo”, as objects in these collections are removed from their environments and do not get to continue in their liner paths outside of it, but enter a path of forced preservation and precise consumption.  Because of their collection botany, mineral and wildlife specimens exit their paths of natural existence that depend on the environment for their future states outcome to be placed in a human made state of delayed decay.  Freezing these animals, plants and minerals in the state that they were collected to an extent is the goal for collection on exhibition and often seems to seek an achievable lifelike state, goals for collections for research that are not viewed by the public differ, as noted in our weekly meeting discussion research goals and methods can very. These actions bring minerals, wildlife and plants into view in a way that can not be seen otherwise and it is because of that that I feel strongly that natural history museums have a universal appeal.  No language is needed to admire these beautiful things and while sharing direct information and education is very integral to natural history museums, I feel that the greatest accomplishments of these museums are the wonder and appreciation that is gained from seeing things so closely in a way that is very intimate.  I have often felt that when I am viewing art or animals in a zoo that I am very much a part of an audience and for whatever reason, that mostly leaves when I am in a natural history museum.  The act of discovery feels very much authentic and impactful without the awkwardness that comes with viewing animals in zoos.  I do not feel that anything is being taken from my viewing of them in their collected state, because whatever was taken from them was already taken.  Just as a gallery serves an art piece as a white inorganic box that provides the contrast needed to examine something more closely, so does a natural history museum provide that for their collections and exhibitions. 


The practices that natural history museums arose from come in many forms and in many ways are still practiced by both people and animals alike, collecting from the natural world and the everyday things one sees outside is very much still alive in all of us, I have no doubt that we all have rocks, sticks, leaves or flowers that we saw and picked up to take home with us.  A universal human trait, I have seen many rock collections or pressed flowers that adorned peoples homes. As I stated in my history discussion post both the practice of coveting and exploring are very much universal human needs/tendencies that developed and where practiced all over the globe.  Taxidermy, that is used in many natural history museums for exhibition of wildlife, was practiced in many diverse cultures and places and developed in many different cultures all over the globe without direction.  This practice was done by my ancestors, the Koyukon Athabascan peoples when they collected and stuffed some of their favorite bird skins with grass to give them a lifelike appearance and hung them in their homes (Make prayers to the Raven, R.Nelson P. 85).


So many of the ways we see collections in natural history museums are shared in many ways as listed above and the reasons for this is that we all share the lens as human beings from which we view the world.  Plants, animals and rocks are truly the “others” on this planet which we all share.  We are allowed to see them as others due to the fact that they truly are the others that are out there in this world we inhabit.  Perspectives on viewing art, technology, history and ideas are distinctively not shared, simply because we all experience life, thoughts and ideas differently which is the point, but with the “others” we view them in a shared way, as human beings see things that are not from us in any way. These things exist without us and are often better off without us and that level of separation is something that we all share.  These things in turn cannot be “made” by us but only collected from their independent existence.  These are some of the fundamental differences that make my experiences with natural history museums different from other museums, as they deal directly with how we view the world around us and not the world within us.  Quyana (Thank you.)

1/24/21 EDIT:

Q: In what ways can could natural history museums engage artists and people in the arts field?

4 Thoughts to “Nunamin (from the land)”

  1. Martin Gutoski

    I liked your insights into natural history compared to other types. I too am very fond of little local hole in the wall museums. You as an artist can surprisingly appreciate such collections as the hummingbird ones you posted. There is an innate artistry in displaying objects even in natural history museums that somehow links our eyes to patterns in living objects that are put on sticks or strings. The random gathering of flocks of birds, bugs or other biota is some how ordered in some unnatural group patterns of size, color or species when they are displayed in natural history museums. This seems to lead a viewer to appreciate this typological penchant for hums to order and sort things to under stand the complexity of nature to our penchant to find order in what appears to chaos
    One question I have of your picture postings of hummingbirds, is that at UANM or elsewhere?

    As an observer for the Audubon winter bird counts in Fairbanks I don’t think there are many humming birds seen in summer either. The only hummingbird I’ve seen in my 60 years in Alaska was in Valdez while surveying the tidal flats after the 1964 earthquake. I was walking in the intertidal zone looking for tide gauges to measure subsidence after the dock in Valdez dropped into the sound when suddenly there was a buzzing iridescent object hovering over some spring flowers. At first I thought it was a large bee gathering the pollen but by the time I registered it was a hummingbird the little buzz bomber flew off. To this day I still recall that sound and brief vision reflected in one of Jimi Hendrix electric guitar songs.
    Seeing these probably hundreds of hummingbirds on display in your image post makes me want to hear recordings of them to go along with the dead stick fly by wire landings they are now incased in under glass.
    This brief audible and visual memory comes back when you see a display like that and links natural phenomena to our senses.

    1. Erin Gingrich

      Hello Martin,
      Indeed hummingbirds are a wonderful avian and I was very taken by how there were arranged at the Harvard natural history museum, where the images of the display is from.
      Quyana, Erin

  2. Martin Gutoski

    ERRATA: Line 10 @ first paragraph should be spell checked to make hums into humans.

  3. Michael Hubert

    I think that natural museums should engage with artist . there is so much inspiration in these museums. it should be important that the museums reach out to groups or people that have a connection with item that they might have that have some cultural significance. it would be great to see things and the museum and get inspired to create a piece of art that could be displayed in that museum. I think as a artist it would be hard to decide on something with all the things that you could see or get inspiration from.

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