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Mark Dion installation featured in Johns Hopkins University’s new library building

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October 2, 2012
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Mark Dion’s wunderkammer in the Brody Learning Commons on Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus. Photo by Will Kirk. Additional high-resolution photos available. Email acl@jhu.edu.

Pieces of Johns Hopkins University’s past have a permanent and prominent place in the present, thanks to a new, expansive art installation inside the Brody Learning Commons.

Opened in August, the Brody Learning Commons is a student-focused, four-story library building that features a robust technology infrastructure, group study spaces, and seminar rooms. At the heart of the decidedly 21st century space is artist Mark Dion’s An Archaeology of Knowledge, a wunderkammer (cabinet or wall of wonders) with more than 700 objects from all corners of the Johns Hopkins universe. This nod to the past is located within the commons’ 100-seat quiet reading room.

Housed in a 20-feet high by eight-feet wide laboratory cabinet that once belonged to a beloved biology professor, Dion’s wunderkammer tells the history of the university by displaying all manner of things, from ancient Roman inscriptions and a vintage university library card catalog, to glass pipettes, miniature books, and a sculpture of Johns Hopkins, the university’s founder and namesake, according to Winston Tabb, Sheridan Dean of University Libraries and Museums.

“Mark Dion’s installation offers our students and faculty the opportunity to gaze upon diverse objects, selected from all parts of our university, and ponder the ways in which these objects and tools of learning both persist and evolve—how items like typewriters and vacuum tubes and even card catalogs begin as technological novelties, become essential, ordinary tools, and then finally devolve into curiosities,” Tabb said. “The Brody Learning Commons is home to our Department of Special Collections and the Department of Conservation and Preservation, where staff work to preserve and transmit knowledge from the past to today’s scholars, and I think Dion’s wunderkammer beautifully reflects this fundamental mission of our libraries and museums.”

Appropriating archaeological and other scientific methods of collecting, ordering, and exhibiting objects, Dion creates works that question the distinctions between rational scientific methods and irrational influences. “This installation hearkens back to the infancy of our culture’s collaborations of the arts and sciences,” Dion said. “It bookends the digital, virtual, and technological aspects of contemporary learning and underlines the vitality of the rare and physical as well as the importance of historical continuity and heritage.”

The contents of the installation were gathered over several months as Dion and Jackie O’Regan, curator of cultural properties for Johns Hopkins University, visited departments, institutes, and centers affiliated with the university. “The results are a marvelous amassing of the stuff of knowledge, a collective archaeological excavation of the material fabric of Johns Hopkins,” Dion said.

The cabinetry that houses An Archaeology of Knowledge comes from the laboratory of the late Saul Roseman, who was a professor in the Department of Biology in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences for more than 45 years. Stretching nearly to the ceiling of the commons’ quiet reading room, the cabinets’ bottom third contains drawers that open, allowing viewers to interact with the installation.

An Archaeology of Knowledge is a work that can be visited for a few minutes of delightful discovery, or a lengthier indulgence of curiosity with the accompanying field guide,” O’Regan said. “This project is one of the most recent of our efforts to incorporate art into new and renovated buildings across Johns Hopkins to enhance our surroundings, to encourage intellectual engagement, to challenge our senses, and, in the artist’s words, to ‘encourage productive daydreaming.’”

Dion’s work has been shown nationally and internationally, including at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and London’s Tate Gallery. Recent exhibitions include Phantoms of the Clark Expedition, at The Explorers Club in New York City; Mark Dion: Troubleshooting at the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum; and Den, a site-specific installation for the National Tourist Routes in Norway. Born in New Bedford, Mass., Dion received a BFA and an honorary doctorate from the Hartford Art School at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. He teaches in the visual arts department at Columbia University and divides his time between New York and Pennsylvania.

Visitors are welcome to view An Archaeology of Knowledge, located in the Quiet Reading Room on Q-level of the Brody Learning Commons. Members of the public can access the building between the hours of 8 a.m. and 10 p.m.; photo identification is required.

The Brody Learning Commons is the newest member of Johns Hopkins University’s Sheridan Libraries. Named in 1998 to honor the generosity of R. Champlin and Debbie Sheridan, the Sheridan Libraries also include the Milton S. Eisenhower Library, the Albert D. Hutzler Reading Room, the John Work Garrett Library at Evergreen, and the George Peabody Library in Mount Vernon Place.

High-resolution photos are available. Email Amy Lunday at acl@jhu.edu.


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