PhD Research (completed Dec 2009 – funded by the AHRC)

Putting Animals on Display: Geographies of Taxidermy Practice

NMS Taxidermy Lab: Instruction from Peter Summers. Photo: Kate Foster

My PhD research critically examined the craft worlds and knowledge-practices of taxidermists, past and present, and their material culture of animal remains.The research, which focused on recovering and recording the practice of taxidermy across different sites (from scientific laboratories, to Natural History Museums, to commercial taxidermy outfits and the studios of contemporary artists), was highly interdisciplinary and drew on research arguments and approaches originating in cultural geography, science and technology studies, museum and material cultural studies, the history of science and the emerging field of animal studies. It also necessitated the development and use of experimental methods. Taking inspiration from non-representational theory (Thrift 2008) and the practice of certain contemporary artists, these included an ethnographic video study of a practicing taxidermist and the use of specimen-artefacts as object-based archives. Being a practice-led PhD, part of the goal of the research was to reassert the value of taxidermy specimens and collections through collaborative exchange with museum practitioners and contemporary artists. The exhibitions Blue Antelope (2006) and Out of Time (2007), co-curated with environmental artist Kate Foster, were the practical outcomes of different investigations by geographers and artists into how interest in zoological collections can be reactivated.

Postdoctoral Research

Fashioning Feathers: Dead Birds. Millinery Crafts and the Plumage Trade

(in association with the Material Cultural Institute, University of Alberta)

Humming Bird Hat Fascinator, Clothing and Textile Collection, University of Alberta. Photo: Merle Patchett

While Feathers fascinate, are fetishized, and are very much back in fashion, there was a time when the wings, bodies and heads of birds were used to adorn hats.

The exhibition – Fashioning Feathers: Dead Birds, Millinery Crafts and the Plumage Trade (May-June 2011, FAB Gallery, University of Alberta) – I am currently researching, designing and co-curating (with Liz Gomez) aims to defetishize such ‘feather fashions’ by exploring the complex geographies of collection, production and consumption behind their making. From the hunting and killing of birds in their natural habitats, to their processing in metropolitan plumage sweatshops and crafting by professional and amateur milliners, to their final adornment on the heads and bodies of women in Europe and North America.With all these human designs on bird feathers Fashioning Feathers… enlists the artwork of certain contemporary artists to help engage our curiosity to wonder at how birds use their feathers – and what we do to birds in the process of fashioning them.

By tracing the movement of these commodities across time and place (and between states of life and death) the exhibition extends ‘follow the thing’ methodology into an exhibitionary context (Cook and Harrison 2007) and aims to develop upon non-anthropocentric approaches to the interpretation and display of animal remains (Knappett and Lambros 2008). Overall Fashioning Feathers… as both a research and  exhibition project aims to explore what working with a geographical imagination can bring to the production of material culture exhibitions and in turn highlight the potential of the exhibition as a geographical research output.

Mapping the Acoustics Ecologies of the Athabasca Oil Sands

(currently un-funded and self-motivated)

View of a tailings pond and Syncrude Oil Sand Mine in the distance. Photo: Andriko Lozowy

This digital curation project aims to employ creative mapping strategies and mapping devices to create an experimental sonic map of the acoustic ecologies of the Athabasca Oil Sands Industrial Site.

Since the 1960’s cultural geographers have been involved in a project to ‘deconstruct the map’; that is deconstruct the notion of the map as an objective form of knowledge (Harley 1989). It is now increasingly recognized that cartography is a contested practice, embedded within particular sets of power relations, and that maps are bound up with the production and reproduction of social life. However while maps have been problematized, they still continue to have compelling cultural significance as the focus of artistic practice, scholarly investigation and wider public concern. Keying into important twentieth century debates about how space is experienced and could be mapped, this project sets out to employ and expand upon emerging creative cartographic practices to map the acoustic ecologies of this controversial mega-scale industrial site.

The project aims to develop on the work of the ground-breaking 1970’s project Soundscapes of Canada whose objective was to capture disappearing sounds in response to over noise pollution. R. Murray Schafer (pioneer in the field of acoustic ecology) and his peers at the Simon Fraser University undertook an extended field recording tour of Canada. Material collected during that tour forms the basis of a series of radio compositions, each of which treats the Canadian sound environment uniquely. This sound mapping project seeks broaden the scope of the Soundscapes of Canada project by recording the acoustic ecology of an industrial noise zone – the Athebasca Oil Sands Project – a soundscape entirely unique to Canada.

1 Response to Research

  1. Geraldine Perriam says:

    Hi there, Merle.

    Great website.

    Much love,

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