On a desk within the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, an old stuffed parrot guards a small library and a vast, yet obsolete ornithology collection. An excited young scientist reads a story on the origins of the desiccated animal to entertain a group of visitors: it may have been the last "speaker" of a dead Indigenous language from colonial Venezuela or a German prince's precious gift to the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. There is no clear understanding which of these versions, if any, might be true.
Curated by David Ayala-Alfonso, Never Spoken Again: Rogue Stories of Science and Collections is a traveling exhibition that reflects on the birth of modern collections, the art institutions that sustain them, and their contingent origin stories to reveal a universe of erasures, violence, and fortuity. Considering how institutional collections organize our lives, Never Spoken Again brings together artists whose works open up a critique of material culture, iconography, and political ecologies.
In turn, each of the works sheds light on myths, simulations, fake currencies, war games, and the slow violence of systematic racism that historically underpin collecting practices. Together, they invite inquiry into how our collective histories are presented, curated, fabricated, or all of the above. With wit, curiosity, and compassion, Never Spoken Again asks the question most museum visitors dare not: How did these objects and artworks get to a gallery in Vermont anyway? And why?
In complement to Never Spoken Again, the Fleming Museum of Art's Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, Kristan M. Hanson, has incorporated commissioned, loaned, and existing works from the Museum's collections. From a panel of stone carved in relief which once decorated the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II's (r. 883–859 BCE) palace to a newly printed 3-D Copy of the Bust of Nefertiti (2023), the exhibition further expands and enriches the Fleming's ongoing efforts to interrogate its collecting histories and implement impactful changes in museum practice.
Visitors will have several opportunities to delve deeper into the exhibition, including two hour-long screening events featuring video artworks from Never Spoken Again as well as a public tour guided by Hanson and the Fleming's Manager of Collections and Exhibitions, Margaret Tamulonis. Visit the Events and Programs page for full details.
Top Left Image | Michael Rakowitz, The invisible enemy should not exist – Seated Nude Male Figure, Wearing Belt Around Waist (IM77823) (Recovered, Missing, Stolen Series), 2018. Middle Eastern packaging and newspapers, glue, cardboard, 96 x 73 x 73 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Barbara Wien Gallery.