Alison Owen

Curiouser, Providence Natural History Museum

exhaustive to incomplete

Why do we collect things? And, once we collect, how do we categorize? As I spent time with the museum collection, I was struck by how personal all of the objects seemed, with their handmade labels listing the name of the collector and the object’s provenance. On each successive visit, the museum seemed less sterile, less objective, and much more subjective, human, fragile. I decided to solicit donations from family and friends, to be inserted into the museum’s collection. I wanted to see what people thought of when they thought of “natural history”. I began receiving objects in the mail- a cicada wing from Texas, ginko leaves from Japan, granite dust from Ireland, paint scrapings from a studio in Providence. Many people included notes, just like field scientists, about what the object was and where they found it. Once I received these specimens, I began finding a place for them among the museum objects. I created my own taxonomy. I tried to choose a place for each new donation that would bring fresh appreciation for the museum’s specimens, within a system open enough to allow crossovers and ambiguity.

Going through the vaults of the museum, I became interested in the methods of presentation, as well as the objects presented. I chose to work with a box of disassociated labels, which are labels that have become separated from their objects. The labels became specimens in their own right, able to be separated according to handwriting, color, and typeface. I studied the organizational methods used in bug collections, and applied the same methods to these disassociated labels. Many of the labels are very old, so the writing styles and typeface are like rare, or extinct, creatures. The names and descriptions become like fragments of poetry, an opportunity for free association and imagination.