Museum of the Anthropocene

The Museum of the Anthropocene is a project that geographer Dr Martin Mahony has been running with third-year students on the University of East Anglia’s Geography and Environmental Sciences courses and, as ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe explains, “it clearly has some resonances with our own series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. The idea to bring a selection of the students’ short essays to our site came about through exchanges Martin and I had on another ClimateCultures project (with the University of Bristol’s Centre for Environmental Humanities), Environmental Keywords, and I’m delighted that Martin is curating a collection that brings this Museum of the Anthropocene online.”

The Museum of the Anthropocene forms the centrepiece of Martin’s course ‘Human Geography in the Anthropocene’, which he’s been running since 2018. The Museum is built collaboratively each year, with each student selecting an object that they think is particularly eloquent of the historical, political and cultural processes that have led us into the Anthropocene, or which helps us imagine a world beyond the Anthropocene. The Museum is staged around two-thirds of the way through the 12-week course, before students then complete a longer essay on their chosen object. Students are given a framework with which to interpret their objects and their significance, but the project is designed to give students freedom to use their objects to explore what being a citizen of the Anthropocene means to them. From world-changing technologies to humble consumer goods, and from family heirlooms to priceless works of art, each year the Museum is stocked with objects which tell stories of both personal and planetary significance.

Students with some of their objects at the first Museum of the Anthropocene pop-up exhibition at UEA, 2018.
Students with some of their objects at the first Museum of the Anthropocene pop-up exhibition at UEA, 2018. Photograph: Martin Mahony © 2018

We’ve recently added a new selection of six objects from the 2023 cohort of students, supplementing the initial selection of eight from previous years’ submissions. Together, these show the range of objects that students bring to their understanding of the Anthropocene, how this new planetary era is manifested in so many different ways through human disruptions not just of the ‘natural’, the more-than-human and the social but of our ideas of these phenomena and their — our — relationships. All human objects are cultural artefacts, of course, and some speak more to the cultural sphere itself, others more to the natural (or what until the Anthropocene could be thought of as ‘natural’). There are works of literature in this museum (a novel from North America’s golden age of science fiction, poetry from Central America that speaks of ancient pre-Western cultures) and technologies both ancient (the mirror) and modern (space junk from generations of near-Earth satellites, and the pesticide Roundup). There are objects that erase the cultural identities they supposedly make available to us (a cheap fancy dress costume to turn you into a Native American), and those that either help us remember something of cultures and world views that are nearly lost to us (a medieval world map) or ignore the deep roots of some of our seemingly modern traditions (the Christmas tree). Whether explicit or implicit, there is a debate within and between these essays on when this ‘Anthropocene’ began, what our objects can reveal — and might conceal — and what are the impacts of this emerging age, on us, and on the planet.

But why objects? What is it about material culture that helps us investigate the Anthropocene, its histories and geographies and possible futures? There is some impulse that underpins the object-oriented focus of projects such as this Museum of the Anthropocene and A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and other initiatives such as the evolving work revealed in the book Future Remains. A series of essays on more than a dozen objects, that book began as what its editors — environmental history and environmental studies scholars Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero and Robert S Emmett — describe as a ‘slam’ event inviting freestyle conversation, debate, and reflection on what a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ of this new age might mean, and then evolved into an exhibition and a workshop before becoming its own object in book-form; you can read our review, The Mirrored Ones. In their preface, they suggest that “Objects have the power to bridge spaces and join time … and thus disrupt linear narratives [and] a sense of human exceptionalism” — as well as the power to engage many publics.

The Anthropocene itself can be spoken of as an object — a ‘hyperobject’. Philosopher and literary theorist Timothy Morton introduced the concept of hyperobjects as “things that are huge and, as they say, ‘distributed’ in time and space — that take place over many decades or centuries (or indeed millennia), and … are impossible to point at directly all at once.” It can also be spoken of as a ‘boundary object’ in terms of how it is employed in discussion and in work that different people might seek to do together around it (such as an initiative like ClimateCultures). Boundary Objects — which can be concepts as well as material artefacts — were proposed by Science and Technology Studies scholar Susan Leigh Star, as “objects which are both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and the constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites”. Both the ubiquity of the Anthropocene and its vagueness or ungraspability as a whole make it useful for discussions that don’t need to come to a final consensus but allow us to do common work in thinking how we might respond. And objects are useful for exploring such a concept. As sociologist of science Sherry Turkle says “Evocative objects bring philosophy down to earth. When we focus on objects, physicians and philosophers, psychologists and designers, artists and engineers are able to find common ground in everyday experience.”

Objects, then, are good to think with, and the Anthropocene is perhaps above all an imaginative project — one that challenges us through its scale in time and space and culture, that requires responses that are somehow grounded in our realities as well as reaching beyond them. And objects offer an imaginative tool that somehow sits in our hands and simultaneously extends beyond them. In his inaugural blog post, Object-based Learning in the Anthropocene, Martin talks about the thinking behind creating the Museum with his Human Geography in the Anthropocene students. And in his second post, Centrifugal Stories in the Anthropocene, he introduces our latest selection of objects with a common interest in what different human relationships with flora and fauna tell us about this new planetary age.

There will be more to say about objects — and we hope the Museum will spark responses from ClimateCultures members and others — but the objects themselves have plenty to say.

Showing the 2022 Museum of the Anthropocene pop-up exhibition at UEA.
The 2022 Museum of the Anthropocene pop-up exhibition at UEA. Photograph: Martin Mahony © 2022

Inside the Museum of the Anthropocene you will find our first 14 objects so far — and more will be added each year. Please do leave a comment on any of the objects that particularly interest you — or comment below on any aspect of the Museum project or the relevance of material culture to our understanding of the Anthropocene.

We’ve also added an Anthropocene Glossary, to highlight some of the many terms and concepts that we use to talk about this new age and how our material cultures shed light on its complexities and challenges.

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