Strange Creatures, UCL Grant Museum of Zoology
Strange Creatures, UCL Grant Museum of Zoology, 16 March-27 June 2015, Monday-Saturday, 1-5pm. Curated by Jack Ashby.
The exhibition Strange Creatures at the UCL Grant Museum of Zoology looks at the value of images in the building of knowledge of unknown creatures. Its starting point is a painting of The Kongouro from New Holland by George Stubbs (1773), who never saw a live specimen of the creature. To paint the kangaroo, Stubbs used a drawing from Sidney Parkinson’s diary of his travels around the world with Captain Cook’s first expedition in 1770, as well as a skin and a skull brought back from the expedition. Naturally enough, Stubbs’s kangaroo suffers from anomalies and inaccuracies. From this painting, placed in the middle of the hall-like museum, the exhibition goes on to demonstrate that visuals were – and still are – key to validate the existence of new and unknown species. Displays, written by UCL palaeontologists and historians of science, look not only at images of new animals through the ages, but also at toy models, and mounted specimens.
The early modern period, a time of discoveries of new worlds and their animals, is the subject of a number of displays. One display, for example, focuses on the many images of the rhino, and how the lack of live models meant that Albert Dürer’s inaccurate drawing became the image of the rhino for most of the seventeenth century, and the basis of numerous copies in art and printed works. It was only when Jan Wandelaar saw Clara, a live Indian rhino that landed in Rotterdam in 1741, that he was able to correct Dürer’s long-standing image. The notion of authentic and fake was non-existent in the 16th and 17th centuries, where visual images of new and mythical creatures were seen as physical evidence of the existence of the richness and marvels of nature. Similarly, a display on taxidermy incites visitors to reflect on the contradiction that a poorly reconstructed animal might be a real specimen but not its true representation. Finally, the exhibition stresses the fact that today we still use images as validation of the existence or true representation of an unknown animal. It looks at press coverage when a new species is discovered, as well as the need to represent dinosaurs, animals that we will never see.
Strange Creatures is a thought-provoking exhibition, the product of a fruitful collaboration between academics and curators. One of its appeals is that it is not placed in a separate space – the Grant Museum is perhaps too small for a dedicated exhibition space – but rather it is embedded within the fascinating permanent collection. For instance, it uses some of the permanent skeletons to emphasise the practice of comparing unknown animals with known ones. Citations from diaries of travellers are scattered throughout the museum, placed near relevant skeletons, revealing how these travellers first compared the kangaroo to a jerboa, or its dung to that of a deer.
Strange Creatures closes on Saturday 27 June.
Dr Isabelle Charmantier