posted January 20, 2010

William Pannapacker Speaking at Symposium in Denmark

Dr. William Pannapacker of the Hope College English faculty is among the speakers being featured during a two-day symposium in Copenhagen, Denmark, concerning the potential redesign of Denmark's national Natural History Museum.

Pannapacker, who is an associate professor of English and director of the college's Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Scholars Program in the Arts and Humanities, will present "History, Art, and Science: Sustaining Natural History Museums as Centers of Culture and Education.  Making Natural History Museums for Adults as Well as Children" on Tuesday, Jan. 26.  He was invited to participate because of a series of essays that he wrote for "The Chronicle of Higher Education" on mistakes that he believes have been made in the redesign of many museums in the United States.

Writing under the pen name "Thomas H. Benton," Pannapacker has published a regular column in "The Chronicle of Higher Education" since 1998.  His three essays concerning natural history museums, published between October 2006 and October 2009, lament the lessons lost as, he feels, museums have in recent years emphasized providing a simplified, entertaining experience rather than presenting their historic materials in a way that encourages reflection and depth of understanding.  He calls instead for presentations that emphasize the wonder of the unique objects found within the collections and connect visitors to a sense of the museum and its collection as a part of the process of discovery.

Among the suggestions he shares in his most recent, 2009, column:

° "Do not sacrifice the history of your museum for the sake of being up-to-date everywhere you look.  Showcase the development of science as a self-correcting, interdisciplinary enterprise that, nevertheless, has a past that is worth celebrating."

° "Foreground the art of science and the aesthetics of the museum.  Regard the museum as a palimpsest, or exposed layers of sediment.  Do not engage in expensive, wholesale renovations that destroy the work of prior generations of curators or the memories of older visitors."

° "Do not attempt to compete with other forms of entertainment; there are few museums that can provide the mindless thrills of Dinoland U.S.A., nor should they.  Audio-animatronic dinosaurs and do-it-yourself excavation pits are not the answer, nor are more interactive computer terminals that seem obsolete within a year of installation."

° "Show people - in small groups - the museum behind the scenes.  Reveal the natural-history museum as a living institution:  the workrooms of the curators, the drawers full of insects, the cabinets full of skins, the shelves of specimen jars, and the technicians working with computers."

° "The most important point:  The world is full of simulations.  Natural-history museums should cultivate the aura of the real:  the rare and unique, the beautiful, the exotic, and the grotesque.  Better to showcase one crackalured bone for the great rarity that it is than to add one more fake-looking T-Rex skeleton, in midattack, posed as a photo op."

Pannapacker has been a member of the Hope faculty since 2000.  His research interests include the digital humanities, Walt Whitman,  19th century American literature and Atlantic studies.

His publications include the book "Revised Lives: Walt Whitman and Nineteenth-Century Authorship" (Routledge, 2004), and he is currently researching a scholarly monograph called "Whitman's Cities" and preparing a visual studies monograph called "The Legacy of the Rural Cemetery Movement in America."  He is also the author of numerous shorter publications on American literature and culture, and a contributing editor to "American Literary Scholarship."

Pannapacker holds a doctorate in the history of American civilization from HarvardUniversity, and master's degrees in English from both Harvard and the University of Miami. He completed his undergraduate degree in English at St. Joseph's University.

The Natural History Museum of Denmark was established in January 2004 by the merging of the Botanic Garden, the Botanical Museum and Library, the Geological Museum and the Zoological Museum.  The four departments themselves trace their origins to the 17th century.  Now department of the University of Copenhagen, the museum is responsible, as its Web site notes, "for maintaining and building up natural history collections, for carrying out research in the natural sciences and for presenting the current state of knowledge about natural history to the general public."

In addition to Pannapacker, the presenters during the January 26-27 symposium will include scholars and museum experts from elsewhere in the U.S. as well as Germany and the Netherlands, as well as representatives of the Natural History Museum of Denmark.