Object Lessons

Recollecting Museum Histories at Michigan

October 13–December 30, 2017

Curated by Kerstin Barndt in collaboration with Richard Barnes and Amanda Krugliak, with original commissioned artwork by Richard Barnes

The history of the modern research university is unthinkable without collecting. At the University Michigan, the first objects brought to campus in the late 1830s included a piece of copper from the Upper Peninsula, bird skins, an Anishinaabe canoe and pressed plants. Today’s collections encompass over 25 million specimens and artifacts. As the last exhibition before the closing of the Natural History Museum in the Ruthven Museums Building, Object Lessons activates the memory of the museums building and richly illustrates the University of Michigan’s lasting effort to build collections in support of its academic mission and for the public.

Showcasing original objects dating from 1837 to the present, Object Lessons affords visitors a synthetic look at 200 years of collecting for science. Museum specimens, artifacts and documents from the archives bring into focus the University Museum’s importance to early state history, its first global collecting expeditions, the changing relationship between culture and nature, science and religion; and the transformation of research and collecting practices from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries. Not all of U-M’s historical collections survive; the exhibition reflects this fact by focusing also on the life cycle of collections, on points of origin and decline, and on the shifting valorization of objects over time.

Object Lessons draws on collections housed in the University's research museums (Paleontology, Zoology, and Anthropological Archeology), as well as the University Herbarium, the Museum of Natural History, the Stephen S. Clark Map Library, the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments, the Bentley Historical Library, and the University of Michigan Library. 

The exhibition features photography and sculpture by New York-based artist Richard Barnes that engages with specimens, taxidermy, and tools from the collections. Staging these images and sculpture in today’s campus museum spaces, Barnes offers an aesthetic reflection of the histories on display. A recipient of the Rome Prize, Barnes has had solo exhibitions of his work at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, the Carpenter Center at Harvard University, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Cranbrook Art Museum, among others.

Kerstin Barndt is Associate Professor of German and Museum Studies at the University of Michigan where she teaches European and US museum history and theory as well as twentieth and twenty-first century German literature and culture. Together with Carla Sinopoli, she co-edited the book Object Lessons and the Formation of Knowledge. The University of Michigan Museums, Libraries, and Collections 1817–2017

          A visual and performance artist, Amanda Krugliak serves as the art curator at the U-M Institute for the Humanities. 

The Museum of Natural History is a partner for Object Lessons, providing institutional support and serving as the host of the exhibition in the rooms of the former Ruthven Museums Library.

The project has received generous funding from the University of Michigan Bicentennial Office, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, U-M Office of Research, MCubed, the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, the Institute for the Humanities, and the Museum of Natural History.