Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy


Art and Visual Culture


Dr. Bridget Elliott


One of the primary functions of museums is the deployment of knowledge through collected artifacts. In the case of natural history museums, these collections consist largely of preserved specimens that all share the marks of the human hand as a result of the processes of preservation and display. Such processes result in the transformation of nature into objects of material culture. Given the challenges that arise from shifting definitions of the natural history specimen in an age when life is being re-defined and re-configured, and living matter is treated as a mutable and expressive substance, I question how our perception of the “order of life” has been impacted by recent developments in genetic manipulation, tissue engineering, and DNA taxonomy. I extend the discussion of the impact of the human hand on natural objects to include the practices of contemporary artists who employ taxidermy, wet preservation, field research, scientific illustration, and biotechnology to investigate the shifting relationship between living organisms and taxonomy. I focus on the hierarchical nature of knowledge in art and science, the changing use of language in classification, systems of preservation and display, and mutations and hybrid organisms, to suggest that natural history as a discipline, can be viewed as a mediating factor between the museum, on the one hand, and both scientific and art practices on the other. The specimen therefore functions as a site of knowledge production that merges both the museological impulses of preservation and conservation with the scientific/laboratory-based impulses of experimentation and alteration.