What are natural history collections used for? Why are there tens of millions of specimens behind closed doors in the UK alone that rarely get seen by Mr and Mrs Museum Visitor (and Museum Visitor Jr)?
In his article, Natural history collections –why are they relevant?, Paolo Viscardi, deputy keeper of natural history at the Horniman Museum (and author of the great Zygoma), explains why natural history objects are important. I won’t attempt to rewrite it but please do have a read; it’s very good. Here’s a snippet:
Apart from being hugely popular with the public, natural history collections play a vital role in our understanding of biodiversity, evolution, population genetics and the environmental impacts of climate change, pesticide use and so on. This is because historical collections provide base-line data against which modern observations can be compared and to produce predictive models.”
Hereford has a lovely, if modest, natural history collection which is largely representative of the county’s floral, faunal and geological offerings. Little research is carried out on the collections simply because of the nature of the specimens and their context. Researchers have previously used our objects for comparative research (e.g. peregrine falcons, crinoids) and as part of biographical research (e.g. Dr. Bull’s herbarium). So what are our collections used for apart from being an important record for the county?
We use the natural history collections in as many different ways as we can. They play a very important role in engaging with the public and are a favourite collection on open days and among the most commonly asked for objects by artists. Although (in modern terms at least) art inspired by natural history collections can be rather self-absorbed, art and natural history have formed a strong bond over many thousands of years. Some of it stunning; some of it not. The following is a selection and you can make your own mind up.
Ernst Haeckel was an eminent German biologist and naturalist (among other things) who discovered, described and named thousands of new species, mapped a genealogical tree relating all life forms and coined many terms in biology (including ecology, phylum, stem cell and the kingdom Protista).
Jan Svankmajer, the Czech filmmaker and artist, created the mesmerizing and strangely unsettling film, below: Historia Naturae, Suita (1967). It presents a short, eight-part history of nature, presenting a each group through a different piece of music.
Jan van Kessel specialised in small-scale pictures of subjects from the natural world such as floral still lifes and allegorical series showing animal kingdoms. Obsessed with picturesque detail, he worked from nature and used illustrated scientific texts as sources for filling his pictures with objects represented with almost scientific accuracy.
Paul Bush is a British experimental film director and animator who created the video below. While Darwin Sleeps was inspired by the insect collection of Walter Linsenmaier in the natural history museum of Luzern. The museum-ee voice-over is interesting and the sequence of the insects almost makes the dead specimens seem alive again. Almost.
Alexander Semenov, a Russian marine biologist and underwater photographer, studies sea life through camera lenses. Alexander explains: “Many marine species can’t be photographed underwater for a variety of different reasons. Some animals are too small, some spend their life burrowed in the seafloor, and some live in the dark depths where nobody can dive. At our station, we collect specimens using different methods and as a result are able to show a wide range of animals, which we haven’t previously seen in their natural environment.” Most of his images walk a fine line between science and art:
Damien Hirst, the English artist, entrepreneur and art collector, became famous for a series of artworks in which dead animals (including a shark, a sheep and a cow) are preserved, sometimes having been dissected, in formaldehyde.
Scientists, like Alexander Semenov (above), often use artistic methods to learn about and document observations in nature. Julia Parrish, Professor of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington, says:
…I spend a lot of time drawing; sometimes because I want to map particular birds and whether they have an egg or a chick, and sometimes because not much is going on and I like to draw. It’s really interesting to me because it’s made me think a lot about the role of art in science, and particularly in natural history. It’s an alternate way of knowing, but a really important way of knowing.”
It’s not just the act of drawing, for example, that can hone one’s identification skills or aid with the learning of concepts that may otherwise take longer (or be less likely) to sink in. Working through scientific topics and themes from a completely different angle can make the absorption of said information much easier and effective as well as show the collections in a different light. At the University of New Mexico, the biology and art departments seem to collide in order to undertake some interesting workshops. One of these, Using Natural History Collections and Art to Communicate About Climate Change, investigates the scientific, cultural and artistic perspectives of the subject. Students have to create an art piece using museum specimens (or images thereof) that address how a species may respond to climate change. They then choose one particular response to climate change (e.g. adaptation) for their piece and write an artist’s statement including how they think their work will change other people’s perspectives. Raising awareness of climate change using art and natural history collections as tools.
Methods like those discussed above can work very well for Mr and Mrs Museum Visitor (and Museum Visitor Jr) too. Engaging the public with natural history through art is often fascinating for those on both sides of the craft table. I have spent many days at Hereford Museum Resource & Learning Centre teaching young children about broad biological and geological concepts using Plasticine and glitter. The Heritage Open Days offer a chance for people of any age to come in and see exactly what we as a service do. Special Geology and Archaeology Open Days provide a variety of craft activities which allow children to explore scientific or historic themes disguised as ‘fun’. But what else has the Hereford Museum Service done using and art as a conduit?
The initiative at Hereford Museums Service with the biggest scope is the Take One… project. It is an annual, creative learning programme, started by the National Gallery, using one museum artefact, specimen, painting or building as the inspiration for cross-curricular learning. In 2011, the project revolved around the sturgeon from Hereford Museum’s natural history collection. Teachers attended a training day in which they were introduced to the object in three ways: through evidence, imagination and education. Schools then worked independently to create their own project in school and the work was displayed in Hereford’s Gallery. This project encourages exploration of the object across many disciplines and from different perspectives. This years Take One… project is on display at Hereford Cathedral now.
The artist, Jason Hodges, has recently done some workshops with young children. He showed them how to make masks inspired by natural history specimens we chose (some Papilio butterflies and South American beetles). Jason currently has an exhibition in Hereford’s Gallery which involved research into the museum collections and the exploration of the city of Hereford itself to produce the work he is exhibiting. It was these methods of discovery that he hoped to impart to the children he worked with.
Artists often use the natural history collections for work they are doing; many of them come from the Hereford College of Art. I recently helped one such artist, Joe Horton, as he photographed some of our local wildlife specimens. He arranged them around a colleague’s desk in a surreal scene, wishing to show a different side of Herefordshire. He hopes his image(s) will be chosen to feature in a calendar that aims to shake off the traditional view of the county whilst showing an aspect of it that is seldom seen.
Research is an incredibly important use of natural history collections around the world. Having that baseline of information is vital. However, the breadth of learning opportunities available through using natural history collections in ways discussed in this post should not be underestimated. I hope that every child who has made a dragonfly out of pipe-cleaners or a Plasticine mammoth or a cardboard Arthropleura has left with a new nugget of information, an increased desire to know more. I hope that when they get home they ask their parents for more facts about other creatures or processes. I hope that the parents become more fascinated and actively seek out such knowledge themselves. I enjoy finding out how artist see our specimens and the ways in which they can interpret them. It’s just another way to show the public what amazing things museums “hide away” and how those objects can start a conversation. The natural history collections are invaluable in so many ways; their use doesn’t always have to begin and end with scientific research.