MICROCOSMS: Objects of Knowledge

Bruce Robertson and Mark Meadow


MICROCOSMS is an on-going project, that will find its outcome in a set of physical exhibitions extending into the Internet. Our goal is to enlarge the discursive space of museums, universities, disciplines and collections by pushing at their conceptual boundaries. At the center of the project lie the multifarious things of the world that we collect and analyze in the contemporary university. The knowledge produced from objects is integral to the primary mission of the university, and is quite distinct from textual knowledge. But while we would like to believe that sharp boundaries define the functions of knowledge-objects, they in fact exist in a series of continua of motives and uses: temporal, spatial, institutional. For example, universities and museums are not distinct entities, and neither are museums, laboratories or libraries. Objects reside in teaching or research collections; in departmental or personal assemblages of memorabilia; in the limbo of closets and cabinets, temporarily obsolete and disposable, but never disposed. They are the sources of knowledge production, the storehouses of that knowledge, and the means of its dissemination. There is one space where all these aspects of objects may once have existed under the same roof and that is the 16th- century Curiosity Cabinet; there is one realm where they may be virtually reunited, and that is the Internet. These two spaces are the beginning and end of the project.

Keywords: epistemology, museums, museology, collecting, universities, Internet, curiosity cabinet, memory, memory theater.

"Microcosms: Objects of Knowledge" is an on - going project, one that will find its outcome in a set of physical exhibitions that will extend into the digitized environment of the Internet. Our goal is to enlarge the discursive space of a number of entities - museums, universities, disciplines, collections - by pushing at their edges in several directions. At the center of the Microcosms project lie the multifarious objects, the material things of the world, that we collect and analyze in the contemporary university, including the instruments we use to analyze these objects (which are themselves objects, and thus are also inevitably collected). The information and knowledge produced from objects is integral to the primary mission of the university, and is in many ways distinct from textual knowledge. But while we would like to believe that sharp boundaries define the functions of knowledge-objects, they in fact exist in a series of continua of motives and uses: temporally, spatially, institutionally. For example, universities and museums are not distinct entities, and neither are museums, laboratories or libraries. Objects exist in teaching or research collections; in departmental or personal assemblages of memorabilia; in the limbo of closets and cabinets, temporarily obsolete and disposable, but never disposed. They are the sources of knowledge production, the storehouses of that knowledge, and the means of its dissemination. The knowledge that has been produced about them may exist on them, in texts nowhere near them or in cyberspace. But there is one space where all these aspects of objects may once have existed under the same roof and that is the 16th century Curiosity Cabinet; and there is one realm where they may be virtually reunited, and that is the Internet. These are the beginning and end of the project.

As the new world of instant digitized information dawns, nowhere is its impact felt more strongly, the shape of the future it is creating questioned more emphatically than in the university, the very site of its invention. The "electronic economy of knowledge," as Walter Ong terms it, is usually understood as the successor to the printed word, but it also has serious implications for how we use things. "Microcosms: Objects of Knowledge" questions the role material objects play in the production of knowledge in this new era, by looking first to the past and then at alternative models of collecting, examining 16th century curiosity cabinets and memory theaters, and then voices outside the academy today. Critical to this investigation is not the question of what has been collected, but how these things have been organized. We wish to explore ordering systems, make explicit the viewer's role in creating knowledge, and view critically the claims of the modern university to universal knowledge. For both practical and methodological reasons, explicated below, we have chosen as our case study the vast collections of the nine campuses that comprise the University of California (Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz).

The work of the project is to research a material "economy of knowledge" within the university, and then to plan and mount a series of exhibitions and symposia to be held throughout the University of California system and beyond, from Fall 2001 through Spring 2002, exploring the relationship of objects to knowledge today. [3] The exhibitions will ideally consist of a group of four modules, which may be combined variously, and tailored to the collections of the different venues. Central to the overall concept of the project is the realization of two modules, the construction of Samuel Quiccheberg's 1565 ideal princely Wunderkammer and the reconstruction of Giulio Camillo's Memory Theater of the 1530s. Using a Renaissance ordering system to look at the university has many conceptual advantages, with two being paramount: the heterogeneity of the curiosity cabinet allows us to explore self-consciously the function of university material collections for the first time; while the use of objects still serving utilitarian purposes enables us to understand, also for the first time, how a curiosity cabinet actually functioned. The Camillo Memory Theater is to be used as a structuring interface to the Internet, but perhaps more crucially as a matrix for examining the interrelationships among material objects, their representations and the abstract space of the Internet. The two other modules will be devoted to: works of contemporary artists who explore issues of collecting and classification; and an exploration of non-European universal ordering systems.

The project, organized by two art historians (Mark Meadow and Bruce Robertson), has particular consequences for the visual arts, now an object-form highly segregated from all over objects and highly valued. By reinscribing art objects, both historical and contemporary, within the context of universal systems of knowledge, we reacquaint ourselves with their hermeneutic functions. Using the curiosity cabinet and memory theater, in particular, requires that we acknowledge the historical interrelationship of naturalia and artificialia, and the intermediate position art works held in such an episteme. Forming our displays from objects selected for their utility, rather than their aesthetic value, reinforces an analysis based on functionality. Finally, the pan-disciplinary nature of this project allows us to move our understanding of visuality from the narrow range of text-image relations to which it is normally confined, to the broad totality of visual skills used to study all facets of the macrocosm.

Universities possess a staggering array of objects. These include formal and informal research and teaching collections, as well as objects of institutional memory and aggregates of things that slip between categories of use and history. The university's containers of texts-libraries-have a well-developed theory, literature and public analysis of their role in storing and disseminating knowledge in the modern world; a comparable scale of discourse is emerging for the information network of the Internet. No such discourse exists, however, for the material collections that form a parallel microcosm of learning. To theorize collections, we must investigate their historical and epistemological origins in 16th century curiosity cabinets that acted as microcosms for placing and generating universal knowledge. For unlike virtually all other institutional material collections, university collections, perceived as a totality, retain their claim to universality (a claim which is increasingly made for the Internet as well).

The objects owned by universities today are scattered across their campuses, isolated from one another as much by traditional disciplinary and administrative boundaries as by physical location. The heterogenous curiosity cabinet allows us to reassemble scattered objects into cohesive relationships and, in doing so, to make the familiar strange by providing the modern visitor unaccustomed contexts in which to view them. At the deepest level, this involves reacquainting the viewer with other ways of seeing relationships and order among the things of the world. To this end, we will be reconstituting the associational habits characteristic of early collections, which derived from Renaissance rhetorical educational techniques (e.g. the "notebook system" of Erasmus) [4] the structural principle for our latter - day curiosity cabinet. While such collections did employ such rubrics as the Four Elements, Four Seasons or Four Humors as broad organizational elements, objects still resonated across such divisions. Indeed, it was the anomalous object, that which paradoxically embodied seemingly mutually exclusive natures, that was the generative source of knowledge. Thus, a seashell might be seen as exemplary of natural artifice, or a fossil partake of both inert rock and living flesh. [5]

Today we look at the paradigmatic object as the one that falls firmly within categories as the source of knowledge. The variant or boundary - defying object is frequently either marginalized or treated as indicative of a paradigm not yet established. Rather than exploring hidden relationships and resonances, the modern eye seeks to discriminate, quantify and categorize. Yet despite these profound differences, the general classes of objects found in both curiosity cabinet and university are remarkably similar.

As extensive and ubiquitous as they are, university collections face a crisis, for they are increasingly being neglected. Most disciplines have moved from the study of material things to a study of processes, giving a lower priority to material collections. At the same time, the instant ubiquity of digitized information provided by the Internet seems to hold a greater promise of productivity than any single object or collection. There is no reason, however, to see an investment in the electronic future as antithetical to a continued hands-on engagement with objects. Indeed, even as the Internet beckons beguilingly, the informational and social networks of the university continue to produce ever - growing collections.

"Microcosms: Objects of Knowledge" thus seeks to examine the hermeneutics of material collections within the modern university. We focus on both the historical connections between curiosity cabinets, the beginning of universal collections, and their end in universities, and profound differences and similarities in the ways objects produce knowledge, then and now, and in the immediate cyber-future.

This project arises work done in 1994 by UCSB art historians Mark Meadow and Bruce Robertson, primarily in the form of an exhibition, titled "Microcosms: Objects of Knowledge (A University Collects)," critiqued the use of material objects within today's visual systems of knowledge by contrasting the origins of modern universal collections (as kept and used by the university) in the sixteenth-century curiosity cabinet. To this end we constructed, for the first time ever so far as we know, a working model of a curiosity cabinet, and an equivalent space in the form of a modern "museum" to display what is done with much the same objects today. In our Curiosity Cabinet, we were more interested in exploring the habits of mind that would have been employed by a visitor to such a curiosity cabinet, than in the intrinsic value of historically "authentic" objects. In order to introduce the viewers to the mode of thought behind Wunderkammern, sets of paired objects were displayed at the entrance to the exhibition. For example, as a visual expression of the crucial notion of the interrelatedness of naturalia and artificialia, a caribou head was paired with an acrylic wave form: a part of nature turned into artifact, an artificial substance mimicking natural form. In order to express how different representational means offer relative "truth values," a 17th Century still - life painting of fruit was juxtaposed with an arrangement of plastic fruit used for French language instruction. A commonplace pairing from actual Wunderkammern, a pangolin and pinecone, was used to indicate the manner in which similarity of form leads to a deeper understanding of function. Having examined these introductory tableaux, the visitor then turned a corner and entered the Curiosity Cabinet proper, where he or she could put experience first-hand the associative mode of such collections.

The next section of the exhibition, housed across campus in a modernist "white box," employing the format of present-day museum spaces, was designed to contrast with our Curiosity Cabinet by emphasizing issues of categorization, (over -) labeling and the paradigmatic object. As a critique on normative notions of order we included cases devoted to the academic divisions generally used by universities today - arts, humanities, social sciences and physical sciences. Other displays examined the means by which the paradigmatic is established: scales of time and measurement, the establishment of type specimens, the tools and instruments of analysis. Lastly, to demonstrate that the material culture of the university is broader than commonly assumed, we paid attention to the role of objects as manifestations of commemoration and sentiment and to functional slippage of objects from utilitarian to sentimental to historical. The illusion of rational and firm boundaries-boundaries normativized by the modern university - gave way both through a series of carefully crafted correspondences with the curiosity cabinet and through display of identical objects found throughout the divisions (though used for different purposes).

Our research has led us to the conclusion that despite having no comprehensive knowledge of their holdings of neither their existence nor their nature and function, the modern university has been and continues to be actively engaged in the production and acquisition of objects. The number of holdings is vast, ranging from such teaching and research collections as zoological specimens, fossils, psychological tests and others to fine art prints, commemorative busts, historical artifacts and memorabilia. The circulation of objects, largely unconscious, within the university's social and informational networks is determined by mechanisms of obsolescence, historicization, nostalgia and gift exchange, and may thus be explored anthropologically. At the same time that libraries are actively preserving their function in the midst of technological upheaval, the material collections of universities, doubtless because of their seeming invisibility as a whole, are more subject to neglect or dismantling. This startling paradox calls for timely examination.

Because the terrain we wish to investigate is so vast we have thought it imperative to shape the project quite strictly. Our first foray into curiosity cabinets and museums was guided by a general model of curiosity cabinets and an empirical survey of collections, bringing us up to the present moment. Extending this work we begin with already established universal systems and connect them to the very device which prompted us to begin our explorations, the Internet.

Samuel Quiccheberg's Inscriptiones of 1565 is the earliest known museological treatise. The book offered a plan for organizing every possible thing in the world, set out in five "classes," each subdivided further into ten or eleven "inscriptions." The groupings have to the modern eye an almost Borgesian strangeness but to the 16th century viewer they properly explored the world from the local to the universal, from naturalia to artificialia, from things themselves to their representations. The primacy of the Quiccheberg treatise allows us explicitly to explore institutional origins, and the near perfect match between Quiccheberg's suggested range of collectibles and the contents of modern university collections underscores the continuity of the historical tradition. To highlight these differences and similarities we will make a series of interventions into the Quicchebergian structural axis with a series of modern examples, displaying the same object in both 16th century and contemporary contexts: for example, a seashell as both an object of natural artifice and of interest to micro-crystallography.

While Quiccheberg's Cabinet, as created by us for the first time, addresses the past and present conditions of using objects for understanding the world, what of the electronic future? Here we turn to Giulio Camillo's Memory Theater. The structure took the form of an amphitheater, with the viewer on the stage, facing seven tiers of seven rows - not of seats but drawers or cabinets containing texts and objects - each surmounted by an appropriate image. The horizontal tiers represented a movement from first causes to final effects, from archangels to practical activities. On the vertical axes, each line of seven gates was surmounted by signs of one of the seven planets, a division corresponding roughly to disciplines as we conceive them: thus Jupiter represented at the lowest level air as a simple element but at the top the viewer considered windmills. Camillo's system could be called an invention of hypertext 400 years before Vannevar Bush: the way we retrieve information from the Internet resembles the associative processes operating in curiosity cabinets. We wish to adapt Camillo's Theater to the Internet, creating a structuring system for the Web while ironically calling attention to the inherent instability, incompleteness and arbitrariness of any ordering system that has claims to universality. This modern Memory Theater will have at its center an interactive monitor through which the visitor may select an object or subject from the matrix of forty-nine gates, and through a series of steps - from object, to representation of that object, to the Web - move from the material to the virtual world.

With these central elements in place, we wish to extend the analysis beyond the formal boundaries of the West, the University and its objects, by creating two related modules. Just as Quiccheberg and Camillo were chosen to critique the use of material collections in the university, and the university's claims to universality, so too will it be productive to critique that choice as well. These 16th century precursors establish an historical, Eurocentric trajectory; they emphasize the place of objects over texts within the university and they privilege an academic approach to the museum practices. Through an anthropological exhibition module we can explore non-Western modes of understanding universal order. One aspect of this module will contrast the way museum curators group objects by function with the critique of Native Americans who prefer groupings organized by family or story, the kind of problem James Clifford and Michael Ames have so eloquently discussed. Finally, the work of contemporary artists actively engaged in examining habits of collecting, display practices and classification provide an alternative view of object collections.


Visual information - visual culture - is the heart of information transmission today. Nearly everyone is thinking of visual culture, however, in relation to texts, as though this should be the primary axis of the relationship between the digitized environment and the rest of the world. The Web is being designed as a repository of images linked to texts, with no sense of the relation of either of these aspects of information and knowledge to the physical world of material experience. We have an opportunity, here, to establish an alternative model, one that draws on very deep historical roots but one that offers useful models for the development of the electronic economy of knowledge. It is this historically located research, which examines the structure of knowledge through things, that will gather together several diverse strands of research and present a comprehensive analysis of objects of knowledge, for the first time in the modern era.


1 Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word, London, 1982.
2 Within this narrative, we use the terms "curiosity cabinet" and "Wunderkammer" interchangeably and, for reasons of convenience, indiscriminately to refer to all universalizing material collections from the early-modern period. Since our interests lie more with the underlying conceptual structures of such collections, as manifested in their organizational schemes, the subtle distinctions among curiosity cabinet, Wunderkammer, Schatzkammer, Kunstkammer, studiolo and so forth, are of reduced relevance here. The curiosity cabinet may be characterized as a heterogeneous assemblage of natural objects and artifacts, created both to represent and to explore the macrocosm. At an epistemological level, the curiosity cabinet may be understood to be a mechanism for generating knowledge that is activated through the eye of the curious viewer, who puts into play the potentially infinite series of associations among the objects of the collection.
3 A growing literature critiquing modern museums and providing histories of specific collections does exist; yet no serious research addresses the nature of university collecting as a whole. Moreover, contemporary analysis of museums tends to theorize their collections in terms of commodity fetishism and/or post-colonial discourse, e.g. museums as sites for the formation of nationalism. This study attempts something different.
4 Meadow, Mark A. "On the structure of knowledge in Bruegel's Netherlandish Proverbs," Volkskundig Bulletin, 18:2, 1992.
5 Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: an Archeology of the Human Sciences, New York, 1970.

Microcosms http://www.arts.ucsb.edu/microcosms

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