The Human Epoch: Living in the Anthropocene
The title of this exhibition mirrors the title of a new introductory course in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Connecticut, GSCI 1000E: The Human Epoch. Its purpose is to help students learn how the Earth works and what its history has been so they can reframe today’s global environmental issues in a more holistic and reassuring light.
This curricular exhibition supports the teaching of The Human Epoch by providing primary source material from the Benton Museum’s collection for discussion, questioning, and interpretation by students and faculty. It also offers a point of entry for the broader campus community, as well as the general public, to a set of key questions addressed in the course such as: Is the Earth fragile? Are humans part of the Earth? Why and how have they changed it? How does climate change fit into the larger story? When and how will our epoch end?
Strictly speaking, the label “Anthropocene” is proposed for the latest official epoch of Earth's deep-time calendar. It reflects wide-spread and incontrovertible evidence that human beings are now the dominant geological agent operating on the planet, moving mass at a greater rate than both the glaciers of the last ice age and the rivers of familiar geological history. Indeed, global modernity looks strikingly different from the regional human histories and prehistories of the previous Holocene Epoch, which began about 11,700 years ago, and any previous epoch in Earth's 4.6 billion-year history.
Various dates for the beginning of the Anthropocene have been suggested and hotly debated. Some proponents favor the onset of agriculture and early civilizations about 10,000 years ago, some the onset of maritime colonialism in the late 15th century, and some the rise of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century. But most prefer a date of ~1950, the onset of the "Great Acceleration" of science, technology, human populations, urbanization, energy use, land-use conversions, and species extinctions in the mid-20th century. This last candidate for the beginning of the Anthropocene is ubiquitously and clearly marked in geological strata by the radioactive dust from atomic bombs, major excursions in geo-bio-chemical cycles, the deposition of sediment with plastic trace fossils and synthetic chemicals, and climate change.
All but a handful of the works of art in this exhibition predate the year 2000, when the Anthropocene was first globally designated. Rather than bring together contemporary art that speaks to the Anthropocene as a concept, this exhibition uses the Anthropocene more broadly as an interpretive lens for historical works of art. Throughout the exhibition, you will find texts written from the perspectives of earth history and art history. You are invited to consider how works of art enhance our understanding of the Anthropocene Epoch, and how knowledge of this epoch shapes our understanding of works of art.
Robert Thorson, Professor and Head (Interim) of Geosciences, University of Connecticut
Amanda A. Douberley, Assistant Curator/Academic Liaison, William Benton Museum of Art
Listen to their conversation.