Verschwindende Vermächtnisse: Die Welt als Wald

Zoologisches Museum,
Centrum für Naturkunde,
Universität Hamburg
10 November 2017 – 18 March 2018

Tieranatomisches Theater,
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Spring/Summer 2018

Zentralmagazin Naturwissenschaftlicher Sammlungen,
Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg
Fall 2018

While it is evident to field scientists that the degraded condition of tropical rainforests bears little resemblance to the plethora of displays and dioramas still populating natural history museums, the public has barely begun to consider the consequences of mass extinction and its inevitable transformation of the planet. When concerns are raised, they typically remain hidden in disciplinary silos or behind academic publication paywalls. For people in Germany to recognize the significance of these global events and act to mitigate their most disastrous effects, what is most urgently needed is a renewed culture of learning. The natural history museum was once a primary pedagogical space designed to give visitors a deep appreciation for the profundity of evolution; today, these institutions must adapt to support new alliances for exhibitions capable of addressing more disturbing realities such as ecosystem collapse and climate change. Stimulated by the narrative potency of contemporary art practices, the cherished specimens of tropical nature stored in German collections will be reanimated by the curatorial strategy of Verschwindende Vermächtnisse: Die Welt als Wald [Disappearing Legacies: The World as Forest], thereby activating aesthetic and scientific perspectives that reveal the world as forest.

The theory of evolution was first proposed by Charles Darwin and A. R. Wallace in an article read during a meeting of the Linnean Society in 1858; the so-called “Darwin-Wallace paper” is considered the most important document in the history of biology. As the 160th anniversary of the paper is celebrated in 2018, Verschwindende Vermächtnisse explores the environmental and cultural legacies of natural selection through a contemporary transdisciplinary exhibition. The project takes as its point of departure two expeditions made by Wallace: first on the Rio Negro and the Amazon from 1844–48, and then in the Malay Archipelago from 1854–62. During these endeavours, he collected tropical fauna, documented biodiversity, and deciphered the mechanism of natural selection by comparing zoological morphologies and species’ geographical distribution. While biologists are certain that it was the remarkable spectrum of Wallace’s collections which led to his pathbreaking theories, many are doubtful whether such discoveries could still be made today due to the widespread destruction of rainforest ecologies as a result of rapid deforestation and conversion into monoculture plantations.

Verschwindende Vermächtnisse will first open in the fall of 2017 at the Zoological Museum of the Centrum für Naturkunde, University of Hamburg, before adapted versions will travel to venues in Berlin and Halle. The exhibition aims to cultivate a deeper acknowledgement of the complex cultural entanglements which mediate human experiences of environmental change. The juxtaposition of newly commissioned works of art, objects of natural science, and field research presented alongside tropical specimens, will enable visitors to honestly encounter the legacies of European colonialism in the tropics and to gain an appreciation for heterogeneous and epistemically-diverse stewardship communities in Asia and South America.

The exhibition cycle has the aim of realizing the multiplicative potential of art, media, and natural history which, when provocatively exhibited together, solicit transformative engagements with this fragile planet and its perilous forests. Verschwindende Vermächtnisse combines contemporary works of art, site-based field research, archival materials, and natural history collections to consider the history and legacy of European colonial science in the tropical rainforests of South America and Southeast Asia. The project aims to foster a deep public awareness about the role these forests play in maintaining a habitable climate for the entire planet, and to develop durable cultural literacies to discuss and respond to ecological crises. Using a transdisciplinary curatorial strategy committed to provocative encounters and epistemic promiscuities, Verschwindende Vermächtnisse will demonstrate the potential of contemporary art as a cultural lens through which a plurality of perspectives on colonial-scientific history and environmental violence can reorient visitors’ comportment to global environmental issues. (Artists’ list to be announced in 2017.)

Artistic directors: Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin

Scientific advisors: Matthias Glaubrecht, Felix Sattler, Frank Steinheimer

Verschwindende Vermächtnisse is realized in cooperation with the Schering Stiftung.

The project is funded by the German Federal Cultural Foundation.