Animals as Objects? Histories, Institutions, Infrastructures, Data, and Knowledge

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin


WiSe 2020/21


This interdisciplinary and international Ringvorlesung examines the role of animals in institutional and infrastructural arrangements, past and present. It investigates the processes by which animals are turned into objects – living zoo attractions, museum exhibits, diplomatic matters, commodities, material resources, laboratory tools and data sets. The aim is to understand the trajectories, traffics and transformations of animal-objects within and between different sites of knowledge in their global, political, scientific and cultural context. Therefore, the RVL will examine how animals, dead and alive, have been collected, transported, classified, processed, used, and displayed at different times. It will present shared concerns around the politicisation, datafication and commodification of animals or parts thereof and an extended understanding of agents, institutions and infrastructures as human-non-human co-productions. The different lectures will provide insights into the everyday practices of using, reproducing, recording, caring for and disposing of animals and their bodily parts as well as the fears and imaginations they engender. In each session, researchers from contemporary history, the history of science, cultural anthropology, cultural studies as well as environmental history and political theory will explore specific encounters between animal bodies, knowledge practices and material cultures in different local and global settings.

By investigating how animals are perceived, studied and managed and their environments and worlds are represented, recreated or imagined, the RVL explores how these processes contribute to the shaping of institutions, infrastructures and politics. What determines their status, their mode of existence and their value and how/why does it change – from zoo attractions to waste, from waste to material resources, from carcasses to mounted animals and data sets? The aim is to provide an overview of different methodological approaches and to give insights into current interdisciplinary research projects. Therefore, the RVL presents a wide, yet connected range of examples, spanning from colonial times to the present day. Drawing on the different case studies, the RVL allows to address broader contexts, to communicate crucial theoretical and historical analytics and to discuss pressing current issues – the question of what is and has historically been made to count as an animal; the multiplicity of ways and contexts in which animals were and are used, studied and classified as objects; the role they play in signifying human socialities, just as much as the natural world. At the same time, the RVL invites to engage in the work of historicizing ‘naturalized’ views, of closely investigating the politics of care and the economics of conservation, of challenging a static notion of animals as ‘objects’, and thereby critically interrogating traditional, still effective roles, meanings, orders of knowledge, images and narratives of animals. The Ringvorlesung draws from two current research clusters and their extended network: The research project “Animals as Objects: Zoological Gardens and the Natural History Museum Berlin, 1810 to 2020” based at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin and the research theme “The Body of Animals” based in Department III at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. Languages are English and German.