Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

Crafting Nature: An Ethnography of Natural History Collecting in an Age of Genomics

  • Author(s): Van Allen, Adrian
  • Advisor(s): Hayden, Cori
  • Ferme, Mariane
  • et al.
No data is associated with this publication.

A specific understanding of “nature” has been crafted through centuries of assembling, examining and preserving selected parts of the world, now recast yet again through genomics. In the face of increasing extinction rates, with an estimated 50% of all species potentially heading towards extinction by mid-century, the ethical imperative to preserve biodiversity before it vanishes has taken on multiple forms. Nature conservation efforts have traditionally focused on stabilizing dwindling populations of endangered species and their habitats. In contrast, museum projects have emerged in the last few decades that focus on preserving vanishing biodiversity through genetic collecting for an uncertain future. In engaging the different practices of “crafting nature” in the distinct disciplinary “cultures” of one museum—the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington D.C.—I examine how biodiversity is being collected, preserved and constructed in the contemporary age of genomics.

My ethnography focuses on the Global Genome Initiative (GGI) at the Smithsonian NMNH, tasked with “preserving and understanding the genomic biodiversity of life on Earth.” The GGI seeks to sample and cryo-preserve half of the families of life in the next six years, gathering “genome-quality” tissue samples from newly collected specimens in an effort to biobank the planet’s swiftly vanishing biodiversity. I follow specimens, tissues and data to different parts of the museum, examining the details of crafting specimens for the collections—both morphological (a bird skin in a drawer) and molecular (a tissue tube frozen in liquid nitrogen)—attending to how specimens are assembled, how they circulate and how their use and perceived value shift at boundary crossings. Natural history museums have historically been apparatuses for articulating knowledges, power, and natures into an ordered whole. I argue that these articulations that have extended through to contemporary museums and their genetic collecting programs.

Throughout this research, I came to see how (bio)materials matter. Focused on objects and their significance in networks of social and cultural significance, scholarship on material culture has attended to the relationships of objects to each other and to the history and geography of the object. My research focuses on the material culture of genetic collecting within the museum, another form of replication and conservation which shifts current understandings of the relationships between originals and copies, specimens and samples, collectors and collected. As biotechnological tools and practices have migrated into the museum, corresponding analyses and theoretical debates have emerged in anthropology. These fields intersect in museum genomics, where I take up contemporary biotechnology and the history of the museum, attending to their intersection in current collecting and replication practices and embedding them in a longer history of scientific collecting and the reproduction of knowledge. I examine how biotechnology is redefining and preserving life through specimen preparation methods—using craft as my method to gain a first-hand understanding of how “nature” is made and remade in the back rooms of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Through being taught how to make specimens—to prepare a bird study skin, take tissue samples, sort and scan tissue tubes, pin beetles and pull insect legs for DNA analysis, run electrophoresis gels, press and mount plants, sample leaves into liquid nitrogen tanks, label bones and map genomic workflows from field to lab to freezer—I track the forms of value created through these multiple hand-crafted transformations, and examine how matter comes to matter through the physical and intellectual labor of the museum’s invisible technicians.

Collections are made to matter—through their preservation, negotiated use and continuing re-evaluation. As specimens’ biologies are taken apart into differently valued parts and pieces, spread across the spaces of the museum—from cabinet to liquid nitrogen tank to pinned in a drawer—it is important to remember that specimens remain sites of contested classificatory meanings, objects of shifting value, and (dis)embodiments of particular “natural orders.” Through exploring museum objects in biographical terms, as mobile and transformative of a variety of relationships, I reiterate that there is multiplicity not only between but also within objects. Genomic collections in museums embody multiples kinds of significance, telling complex biographies. Collections are not simply accumulated objects, but instead can be seen as a continual reassemblage of people, places, and materials and interests—they are a shifting composition of the people who have made, use, and collect the objects, and the biosocial imaginaries they both represent and reproduce. In analyzing the different methods of producing knowledge through producing specimens, I seek to render visible the ways collections are made, how they are valued and how they articulate the conditions of possibility for multispecies futures.

Main Content

This item is under embargo until November 2, 2020.