Material World: Exhibiting the Anthropocene

Glass Beach, photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash.

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Imagine an archaeologist or geologist of the deep future. She is at work, intent, uncovering & examining an object or its traces that speaks of our present time. Peek over her shoulder. What is she looking at? What object exemplifies our moment on the Earth – & tells how that moment came to be?

Humans have been exerting so much influence on the planet’s workings of late & creating what for all intents & purposes are permanent changes to it, that some have argued we are living in a new age not just in human history, but in Earth history: the Anthropocene.

In winter 2020, students in Western University’s course on “The Anthropocene: History of a Human Planet,” taught by Prof. Alan MacEachern, considered what material object best exemplifies our transition to & present existence in this new age.

The students were creating a physical exhibit of their chosen objects – a toy dinosaur was located, a bag of chemical fertilizer borrowed – when history itself got in the way, in the form of COVID-19. So the exhibit has moved online.

This project is inspired by Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene, co-edited by Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero, & Robert S. Emmett, 2018, & by an assignment developed by Tina Loo at UBC. Thanks to them, & thanks to NiCHE for hosting this exhibit.

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I am a Professor in the Department of History at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada. I was Director of NiCHE, 2004-15. You can reach me at

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