Curating Proteins and Fibers

Illustrations from "A discourse upon the usefulness of the silk of spiders." Bon Saint-Hillaire. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 1710. © 2017, Royal Society.

No 2
Between Meaning and Purpose
How should we deal with our own hubris of being human while writing about or with animals that are defined by the potential utility of their fiber?

To provide our first reading group with theoretical and practical perspectives, we read the prefaces of The Nonhuman Turn (Grusin, 2015) and Spider Silk (Brunetta and Craig, 2010). We selected The Nonhuman Turn to give us a broad landscape of the different theoretical approaches that have decentered humans over the last several decades. We were also interested in how The Nonhuman Turn had resulted from a workshop devised to take stock of the discourse within the humanities. Interestingly, although the volume does not explicitly engage with the topic of fibers, let alone animal fibers, we found it useful to begin our exploration into the history of animal fibers. The volume inspired our discussion around two points: first, the challenges of avoiding the anthropomorphization of animals and, second, the significance of understanding the properties and forms of animal fibers for the animal itself. The reading provoked us to reflect upon how to deal with our own hubris of being human while writing about or with "animals." (We use the term “animals” to consciously include forms other than the living organism, for example, fur, nails, tissues or cells.)

Historians of science typically fixate on topics related to human utility or extraction. Reading Spider Silk makes us confront an animal defined by its fiber. The spider gives us a powerful example of how we analysts can rethink animal fibers as something beyond that which can be technologically appropriated by either our human selves or by other species. We found the diversity of spider silks and the multiple ways arachnids make use of them striking. Spider webs, for instance, can be rethought as having a protective role for spiders rather than as things that exist to primarily meet human needs. The authors provide biological explanations for the rich variety of arachnid silks. These explanations help historians to understand how fibers are always connected to or with something else, and not an object waiting to be discovered. The emphasis on the materiality of the spiders' bodies and fibers brings us closer to our goals of conducting embodied research where the guiding questions are grounded in the material.

Key questions we identified from the two readings include:

  • Who has the right to imbue objects with meaning(s)?
  • How should museum conservators, curators, historians, etc. engage with source communities?
  • If animals could be directly consulted, how would this change our conceptions of response/ability?
  • What does the word "nonhuman" tell us about processes of co-construction (i.e.  the challenge of decentering humans)?
  • How do we maintain a critical view of science while collaborating with scientists?
  • How do we encourage a method for understanding extraction, abstraction, construction, and connection, for instance, drawing on Sarah Ahmed's critique of social constructivism?
  • How are these materials important for the animals themselves?
  • What is a protein? What kind of proteinaceous fibers are out there? How do these differences matter historically and in contemporary studies?

Over our next meetings, we will continue our efforts to create a toolbox for multidisciplinary thinking and delve into the possible ways of constructing histories foregrounding animals and their fibers.

Authored collectively by the Working Group


Grusin, Richard, ed. “Preface,” The Nonhuman Turn. University of Minnesota Press, 2015, pp. I - XXIX.

Brunetta, Leslie; Craig, Catherine L. “Preface,” Spider Silk. Yale University Press, 2010, pp. IX - XIV.


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