Julia Schirrmeister

Mark Dion, Rescue Archaeology: A Project for the Museum of Modern Art, 2004. Science, Technology and Industry. Exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Figure 1. Mark Dion, Rescue Archaeology: A Project for the Museum of Modern Art, 2004. Installation view, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Taxonomy refers to the classification of organisms or objects into groups that presume natural relationships between them. The concept is central to art history, since styles and periods are based on categorizing visual relationships. Institutions such as museums create systems of classifying and displaying objects, which help to produce knowledge.

Taxonomy was used in the sixteenth century for the predecessor of the modern museum: the Wunderkammer or “cabinet of curiosities,” where encyclopedic collections were displayed. Rare and extraordinary objects were grouped together based on presumed material or conceptual relationships. The term comes from the German Wunder (wonders or marvels) and kammer (cabinet or room). It was first used by Count Froben Christoph of Zimmern and Johannes Müller in their book Zimmerische Chronik (1564-66). It is used in tandem with words like Kunstkammer (rooms of art) or Kuriosäten and Raritäten-kabinett or kammer (cabinet or room of curiosities or rarities). 1 Although this kind of collection was not exclusive to the Renaissance period, the act of collecting was cultivated to an incredible degree. The sixteenth century was an age of exploration, marked by a renewed interest in the expansion and categorization of knowledge.  A product of its times, the wunderkammer is a direct manifestation of mankind’s desire for humanist learning.

The collector displayed his intellectual prowess and humanist learning in the successful acquisition of three types of objects: products of nature, products of man, and products that testified man’s mastery over nature. Examples of such objects included clocks, astrolabes, scientific and musical instruments, weapons, fossils, skeletons, books and paintings. 2  The greater the object’s ability to inspire awe and wonder in the viewer, the greater its value.  Rare or abnormal objects were highly sought after by collectors.  The owners of these magnificent collections were often wealthy patrons, aristocrats or royalty.  The desire to display one’s power was manifested in these collections, which glorified the collector as a person of great wealth and status.

Artist Mark Dion’s installation Rescue Archaeology: A Project for The Museum of Modern Art (2004) examines the taxonomic systems of institutions like museums, revealing how their constructed narratives shape our understanding of the world.  His work is a contemporary update on the wunderkammer tradition. Born in Massachusetts in 1961, Dion became renowned for archaeological digs executed in the United States and abroad between 1999 and 2004. At MoMA he was invited to create an exhibition with Roxana Marcoci, Senior Curator of the Department of Photography at MoMA. It was based on the archaeological excavations of the MoMA’s garden, then undergoing a large reconstruction. Dion’s process can be divided into three steps: the actual archaeological dig; the cleaning and cataloguing of found objects, and the display of the artifacts in his spectacular large-scale cabinets of curiosities.3

His findings from the MoMA dig included a pillar and fragments of limestone from the foundations of the pre-existing townhouses owned by member of the Rockefeller family, which were demolished in the mid-twentieth century to make way for the garden. He also uncovered artifacts such as cornices, shards of glass and ceramics, fireplace mantels, pieces of wallpaper and bricks from different periods of the museum’s expansion. After cleaning the objects he created his installation, which was divided into parts: a series of three fireplace mantels, his custom-made cabinets, and a functional laboratory and a group of photographs that record Dion’s “behind-the-scenes archaeological performance.”4 His modern wunderkammer, modeled after historical examples, is of particular significance because it investigates the methods of collecting, ordering, and exhibiting ideas embodied in objects and images. Dion reveals the changing values, attitudes and processes of museums over time as they accumulate and disseminate knowledge. Although his objects have little scientific value, he uses scientific phylogeny and classification techniques and technologies to arrange them. Objects are classified by color, material or function.5 This plurality of means to classify underscores the subjective and arbitrary nature of all taxonomies.

Unlike the wunderkammer of the past, this cabinet is open to the public.  The viewer is also invited to interact with cabinet, paralleling Dion’s artistic process, opening drawers and experiencing the different ways in which the principles of taxonomy work in museums.  Dion’s work does not only look critically at the ways in which cultural institutions shape knowledge through taxonomic systems, it also  celebrates mankind’s enduring quest for knowledge through the ages to today.


  1. Wolfram Koeppe. “Collecting for the Kunstkammer,” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (October 2002)
  2. David Carrier, “The Display of Art: An Historical Perspective,” Leonardo 20:1 (1987): 83-86.
  3. Museum of Modern Art. “82 Mark Dion: November 20, 2004- March 14, 2005.” Accessed April 14, 2015.
  4. Museum of Modern Art. “82 Mark Dion: November 20, 2004- March 14, 2005.” Accessed April 14, 2015.
  5. Joanna Marsh, “A Conversation with Mark Dion,” American Art 23:2 (2009): 32-53.