Artifact Hypermuseum of Earth & Anthropocene Design

It is the ultimate tribute to a discipline so obsessed with the future, yet with ultimately so little concern for it

Essay by Lua Vollaard. Part of Episode #3.

This moment calls for a new design museum – a fundamentally new typology. Many such museums have been proposed and built in recent years; but the museum proposed here is the most comprehensive, most definitive, and most qualified testament to humanity’s ability to shape the planet. It is called the Artifact Hypermuseum of Earth & Anthropocene Design (AHEAD), and it shows the total accumulation of human labour to plan a world full of objects, systems, and processes – indeed, a museum of design. Furthermore, this museum is located in a part of the world where no design museum has been established before, and it is already there: Antarctica.

AHEAD consists of all the ice and ice shelves on and around this southernmost continent. It encompasses every shelf that has broken off and dissolved into the sea, every ice mass, every rupture from its surface down. It includes Larsen A, B, and C, and the other Larsens, Chasm 1, the Halloween Crack, the Doomsday Glacier. It especially comes to light in the spaces between chasms, when ice shelves are calving (a word for bovine birth equally as for glacial death), drifting apart, and shortly, for the span of a few hours or a few days, revealing the planet’s ultimate white-walled gallery spaces.

It could be described as a Hypermuseum, following Morton’s definition of hyperobjects, objects so massively distributed across time and space that they break the specificity of human-scaled spacetime. This museum has already been visited widely, yet its target audience is not human – at least, not the contemporary human.1

The museum starts from Bruce Archer’s definition of design, as something which had a ‘prior formulation of a prescription or model’, and ‘the hope or expectation of ultimate embodiment as an artifact’.2 In Antarctica, climate modelling and fossil fuel reserve calculations have laid the groundwork for the formulation of what is in store for the continent; the expectation of its ultimate embodiment as artifact lay not in its current crumbling form as ice, but in the artifact of carbon accumulation in the atmosphere, after the museum will be long gone. 

It is only logical that the design museum of the future continues to model itself after the white cube galleries brought by modernity. Like design museums of the past, AHEAD showcases good taste in produced goods critically to the masses. There are in fact no larger, or whiter walls, than those of an ice shelf splitting in two. Antarctica here is the curator, exhibition architect, and designer whose work is on display; carbon is the entity whose history is being told, and which is actively constructing, reconstructing, and ultimately destructing the museum.

AHEAD takes part of its curatorial strategy from nuclear semiotics, the study on the communication of danger in deep time. The idea underlying this field is that the nuclear toxicity that is being caused by humans now will far outlive our language, and perhaps even our kind. The storage of spent nuclear fuel is one of the greatest contemporary challenges in energy. It seems insane that we are relying on nuclear energy when we have no adequately permanent solution to store the waste that this process yields, until you realise that the storage space for spent fossil fuels has no fixed location at all: it is in fact the atmosphere. The white walls of Antarctica’s ice chasms are grand projection screens for all of human ingenuity, from the invention of the wheel, to the first steam motors, from mining coal in Wales to pumping oil in the Saudi deserts to the latest sports cars and fighter jets and mega yachts: the accumulated effects of all his industry are contained on the walls of the gallery, as they will crumble before such a history could ever be told. 

Christopher P. Heuer links the exploration of the Arctic, one of the latest continents to be surveyed by European colonists, to the simultaneous Reformation and Iconoclasm; the white space that potential colonisers found ‘emptied description’ also brought about a ‘utopian faith in the critical potential of an objectless art’.3 What the Arctic has done for objectless art, the contemporary exploration of the Antarctic can accomplish for a projectless design – a discipline set free from its earthly reliance on matter, prototypes, and visual communication.

Unlike the design museums that we’ve built in our human habitats, this museum provides no illusions about its emancipatory potential. And whether we admit it or not, the museum is already happening: it has been funded, planned, and realised. It is the ultimate tribute to a discipline so obsessed with the future, yet with ultimately so little concern for it. The museum that is needed in order to testify to the future, is already here: AHEAD.4

Lua Vollaard, hereby applying to be the human interlocutor to the Artifact Hypermuseum of Earth & Anthropocene Design

  1. In the twenty-first century, the most important target audience that every museum should take into account – for this audience will visit most museums – is the sea.
  2. From Willemien Visser, 2006, The Cognitive Artifacts of Designing, p. 117
  3. Christopher P. Heuer, 2019, Into the White: The Renaissance Arctic and the End of the Image.
  4. The Artifact Hypermuseum of Earth & Anthropocene Design is in great debt to the Museum of Oil, a speculative concept by Territorial Agency. The Museum of Oil proposes to put the oil industries in the museum, by keeping the oil in the ground. Together, these two museums should be considered the only two legitimate museums for the coming epoch.