This semester, my colleague Philip Scarpino and I are teaching a course titled, “History, the Environment, and the Global Anthropocene.” It’s the unofficial second half of a two-part Big History sequence that I am offering for the first time this year. The first half, “The History of Evolution and Human Consciousness,” focused on the deep history of humanity, paying particular attention to the links between environment, culture, and evolution (including topics such as gene-culture coevolution and Material Engagement Theory). The second half pursues similar themes by exploring the entanglements between human culture and environmental change.
The course begins by introducing students to the concept of the Anthropocene and some of the debates around it. We then pursue three themes that dominate the readings and discussions: scale, policy and social justice, and public scholarship. Our reading list is quite multidisciplinary, and we’ve been fortunate to attract students from a number of diverse fields. So, we’re expecting some fascinating conversations (this is a reading seminar) that lead us in unexpected directions.
We developed the course in tandem with a larger research project that we have been leading over the past several years, Rivers of the Anthropocene (RoA). RoA is a transdisciplinary research network of humanists, scientists, artists, social scientists, policy makers, and community organizers from six different countries who focus on global freshwater systems during the Anthropocene. The RoA Network as well as individual network researchers have pursued a number of important research projects, both locally and globally. In Indianapolis, we’ve been fortunate to have a number of committed community partners involved in the project, and we’ve worked on several public scholarship and community engagement projects with them.
At a recent RoA meeting with our Indianapolis community partners, we discussed some of our potential projects–one of which has been floated several times: The Museum of the Anthropocene (MoA). The idea behind MoA is to create an outdoor, city-wide museum that explores the history, science, and art of Indianapolis’ Anthropocene. In keeping with our project’s emphasis on freshwater, MoA’s first phase would examine the Anthropocene through our waterways–rivers, aquifers, sewer systems, etc. Ultimately, we would like to create a model that could be scaled and replicated in other communities across the globe.
Our course, we thought, seemed the perfect opportunity to build a prototype. So, we met with our partners to develop a concept. Fortunately, one of them, Big Car, had already experimented with a model that fit our needs: The Garfield Park Vista Markers. Big Car explains the project as follows:
The vista markers aim to engage visitors by calling attention to important park features from afar and also providing relevant information, in both visual and auditory form, upon closer investigation.
Visitors who encounter these vista markers, with shapes abstracted from classic Victrola-style phonograph players, are prompted to dial a phone number unique to each marker that will launch an audio history about the relevant park feature. Upon dialing in, visitors can place their phones inside the open cylinders of each marker to take advantage of the natural amplification provided by the shape of the metal. This amplification allows multiple visitors to share the experience simultaneously – it’s a working, no-electricity speaker!
We’ve decided to create three of these Vista Markers, which we will place along Indianapolis’ Cultural Trail, an 8-mile pedestrian and bike trail that connects Indianapolis neighborhoods and cultural districts. The trail traverses several Indianapolis waterways, which are part of the city’s Reconnecting to Our Waterways (ROW) initiative. ROW is another of our partners. Its mission is to “enrich the livability of Indianapolis and the well-being of residents by generating new and sustainable opportunities to learn about and experience art, nature, and beauty along targeted natural waterways and the neighborhoods around them.”
Since this is a prototype project, we do not necessarily need the Vista Markers to be permanent. In fact, the Museum of the Anthropocene might work better as a constantly moving series of themed outdoor exhibits. Fortunately, The DaVinci Pursuit, an Indianapolis-based organization focused on bridging science and art education has developed a device for placing posts in the ground on a temporary basis. It provides the stability that we need with no permanent impact on the ground in which we place it.
Students will research and write the text for the Vista Markers as well as create podcasts, which can be downloaded and played onsite. Adding another layer of interpretation will be a companion website, which will include supplementary information. Visitors can read this material in a mobile friendly format or access it from home via their computers.
The prototype for the Museum of the Anthropocene will “go live” in May 2016.
Phase 1: Background Reading and Community Partnerships
The first phase of the project is focused on developing students’ understanding of exhibition design and museum interpretation. It will also introduce them to our community partners (Big Car, ROW, The DaVinci Pursuit, Butler University’s Center for Urban Ecology, and Earth Charter Indiana). During this phase, we will go on a series of field trips to local museums and outdoor locations and hold an initial discussion with community organizers. In addition to the required readings, students will also develop their own supplementary reading lists that are relevant to their projects.
The assigned readings for this phase include:
- Clingerman, Forrest. “Environmental Amnesia or the Memory of Place? The Need for Local Ethics of Memory in a Philosophical Theology of Place.” In Religion and Ecology in the Public Sphere, edited by Celia Deane-Drummond and Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, 141–59. London: T&T Clark, 2011.
- Gregg, Gail. “‘Your Labels Make Me Feel Stupid.’” ArtNews, July 1, 2010.
- Museum of New Zealand / Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, NZ. “Exhibition Development.”
- National Park Service and U.S. Department of the Interior. Wayside Exhibits: A Guide to Developing Outdoor Interpretive Exhibits, 2009.
- Pandya, Rajul E. “Community-Driven Research in the Anthropocene.” In Future Earth—Advancing Civic Understanding of the Anthropocene, edited by Diana Dalbotten, Gillian Roehrig, and Patrick Hamilton, 53–66. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2014.
- Scarpino, Philip V. “Urban Environment.” Edited by David J. Bodenhamer, Robert Barrows, and David Vanderstel. The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Phase 2: Project Design
Through a series of lab-based meetings, students will learn how to design, plan, and implement their projects, standards, and assessment mechanisms. They will also learn the basics of podcasting and WordPress-based web design. In this phase, they will begin working in teams of 4-5 and work with each other to create a project proposal.
Phase 3: Project Prototyping
Using their project proposals, students will create a project prototype that responds to:
- the historical research question that they are asking
- the needs/interests of stakeholder communities
- the landscape in which their Vista Marker will be located
Project prototypes will be assessed through in-class and community peer review as well as our course’s grading rubric.
Phase 4: Project Implementation
Students will present their projects at a public meeting, receiving a final round of input before final installation. Using the standards and assessment mechanisms developed during project design and prototyping, we will measure the impact of the project.
By the end of this project, students will develop a series of skills:
- The ability to create, produce, and distribute podcasts.
- The ability to create and develop websites using the WordPress platform.
- The understanding of tools to conceptualize, design, and manage a project.
- The communication and organization skills necessary to coordinate with multiple community organizations.
Moreover, they will have improved their competencies in
- Historical, Geographical, and Cultural Awareness and Literacy
- Historical Interpretation and Analysis
- Comparative Interdisciplinary Analysis
- Persuasive Communication
- Collaborative Problem Solving