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Society for the History of Natural History


Making Nature: How we see animals

Making Nature: How we see animals

Wellcome Trust, London, UK

Exhibition 1 December 2016 – 21 May 2017

The Wellcome Trust’s thought-provoking exhibition Making Nature invites the visitor to reflect upon the ways in which culture and knowledge affect the way in which we understand animals and the natural world. It brings together over 100 fascinating objects from literature, film, taxidermy and photography, to reveal the hierarchies in our view of the natural world, and to consider how these influence our actions, or inactions, towards the planet. The exhibition is divided into four rooms, articulated around the four themes of ‘Ordering’, ‘Displaying’, ‘Observing’ and ‘Making’.

‘Ordering’ reflects upon classification, and the human desire to categorise things, be they plants, animals, or colours. Starting from Carl Linnaeus’s ground-breaking Systema naturae (1735) and his inclusion of man within the natural world, it explores the need for humans to categorise living beings, in order not only to understand the natural world, but also to understand their own position in the natural world. The hierarchy of the ‘chain of beings’, with humans at the top, was challenged by the emergence in the 19th century of theories of evolution.

‘Displaying’ looks more specifically at the changing fashions of museum displays, and makes us think about the power of such displays to perpetuate or challenge animal stereotypes ‘that linger in our collective imagination’. The case of the birds of paradise which were brought back to Europe in the 16th century with missing wings and legs illustrates the (mis)understandings that stem from access to only dead specimens of new species. Two taxidermy dioromas are placed opposite each other, reflecting two very different ways of looking at animals: William Potter’s diorama of anthropomorphic squirrels seated in a doll’s house playing cards (1900–10), and Peter Spicer’s life-like recreation of fox cubs playing (1876).

‘Observing’ looks at the emergence of zoos, such as William Temple Hornaday’s foundation of the Bronx zoo, and celebrity animals such as the elephant Jumbo who was paraded throughout the USA, and led to the production of vast amounts of Jumbo-related paraphernalia and countless poems, stories and songs. A fascinating two-screen installation explores the true story of Antoine Yates, who lived in a high-rise New York apartment with a tiger called Ming, and a large alligator. Footage on the bigger screen showing a tiger and alligator exploring a furnished but otherwise unoccupied flat is absolutely riveting.

The objects in the last room, ‘Making’, were selected by the Center for PostNatural History which was founded in Pittsburgh, USA in 2008. This institution collects organisms that have been intentionally altered by humans, PostNatural animals (such as dogs, mice or singing birds) which were selectively bred and domesticated, or plants like maize. These organisms would not exist without us. They are a powerful reflection of the impact we have had, and are increasingly having, on the natural world.

Overall, this is a concentrated and powerful exhibition, which has been very intelligently curated, with a good balance between visual, textual and audio material. It is a thought-provoking reflection of the impact nature has had on human knowledge, and the impact humans have had on the natural world.

Isabelle Charmantier