Art, Nature, Engagement, and Rural Life

On my first visit to a NatSCA conference I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I was in for a treat. Initially planning to write only about Amgueddfa Cymru‘s ‘Museum in a House’ talk, I found myself drawing parallels between all three presentations in the morning’s second session (likely more by design than accident), as well as the new temporary exhibition at my current museum, the Museum of East Anglian Life.

In ‘The Artist and the Dead Zoo’, Nigel Monaghan delivered a selection of somewhat lighthearted accounts of artists of all genres (modern and traditional, writers and musicians) who have used the natural history collections of the National Museum of Ireland as inspiration, as raw material for casts, and the galleries as backdrops and venues – the museum hosts recording slots for artists on Mondays. Suitably relaxed and open-minded to the benefits of establishing strong working relationships with artists, we were treated to Amgueddfa Cymru’s visual log of their ‘Museum in a House’ project in Roath, Cardiff.

Left: giant deer skull and antlers in the Museum of Ireland’s stores [1]. Right: artwork created using a cast of these antlers by artist Paul Gregg [2]

Conceived and designed as part of a local modern arts festival, the idea of deliberately displaying natural history items outside a museum context had unsettled me slightly, given the recent focus at my own museum to saturate an exhibition of historic art with rural life context, at once visual, audible and intellectual. No need to worry, though, as Jen Gallichan and Annette Townsend ably demonstrated great enthusiasm throughout the project, with a non-hierarchical team allowing for freedom of everyone’s ideas on design, content and installation, from volunteers to curators.

Displays from Amgueddfa Cymru’s ‘Museum in a House’. Left: an arthropod-covered snooker table. Middle: Two dung beetles fight over a vital resource. Right: garden windows bring to mind giant microscope slides [3]

This collaborative and fun approach yielded excellent results, and even some context drawn from popular art and culture of recent decades: suspended taxidermy harked back to the mid 20th century, while the family’s DVD collection was carefully arranged to highlight animal- and nature-related films such as Jurassic Park and Madagascar. The aim was to excite the local art world with a playful exhibition, and create new interest in natural history collections. In this they excelled, seeing 600 visitors in 10 hours, with many visitors returning later with friends and relatives. On-the-hoof creation of a ‘nature trail’ proved the value of freedom of ideas, added purpose to a visit and created another layer of engagement with the artistically-minded public.

Left: Flying taxidermy in the stairwell of the museum in a house [3]. Right: porcelain flying ducks in a 1950s living room display at the Museum of East Anglian Life [4]

Speaking immediately afterwards, Kay McCrann further strengthened the case for the role art (this time fine art) can play to increase awareness and popularity of natural history collections. William Jones’ 18th century taxonomic work ‘Icones’ and Jeff Gabel’s modern line drawings were front and centre. Gabel is known for drawing portraits of real and imagined subjects, while naturalists may have to draw specimens arranged in their mind’s eye to portray all pertinent features for taxonomic identification. Both Jones’ and Gabel’s works are confined using borders. These shared aspects of process and composition between modern artists and historic naturalists offer a handle for appreciators of fine art to begin to appreciate the value of natural history collections and connect to the natural world.

Left: ‘Praimus no. 1′ from William Jones’ ‘Icones’ [5]. Right: Jeff Gabel’s work ‘Art Historian Waiting…’ [6]

At the Museum of East Anglian Life (MEAL), 34 historic oil paintings, watercolours, and drawings rub shoulders with rarely-seen objects from the museum’s stores. Each item illustrates a facet of rural life in East Anglia during the last two centuries: horse shoes sit alongside a thatcher’s needle; a lady’s bonnet overlooks a model wagon; a shepherd’s smock stands sentinel over the whole. The artefacts emphasise a specific item or theme in each artwork, offering our reliable visitor base a gateway to the appreciation of the splendid art on offer, while a soundtrack of birdsong and traditional song, of water mills and farriers and farmyards transports the physical displays into their wider natural environment.

Left: a local shepherd’s smock. Middle: an assortment of MEAL’s objects. Right: A birdcage overlooks its corresponding painting [7]

At MEAL, interest in art arises when art is placed in the context of our collections and our 75-acre site, but it’s not a one-way street. Amgueddfa Cymru generated huge excitement and interest in the museum by removing specimens from a museum context, while at the National Museum of Ireland and in fine art research interest in natural history arises through its relationship with art organisations, the creative process and artists themselves.

James Lumbard

Museum of East Anglian Life



1. NMING:F7768
Megaloceros giganteus (Blumenbach, 1799)
Skull with antlers, complete, of male giant deer; Jamestown, Co. Tipperary.
Gift: Major Purefoy Poe in 1946 (accession NMINH:1946.14)
O’Rourke 1970, fig. 37 (p. 110). O’Rourke, J. (1970) The fauna of Ireland: an introduction to the land vertebrates. Mercier Press, Cork.
Reynolds 1929, fig. 11 c, p. 29. Reynolds, S.H. (1929) The Pleistocene giant deer. Palaeontographical Society [Monographs] 81 (371): 1-62
2.‘Ancient Ecology Pavilion’ at St. Mary’s CBS. Image copyright Paul Gregg, 2016. Image available from:
3.‘What’s In Store At No. 32?’, Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum Wales, 2015. J Gallicgan, pers. comm, May 2016
4.‘Home Close’, Museum of East Anglian Life, Stowmarket, Suffolk. Image copyright James Lumbard, 2016
5.‘Praimus’, no. 1, Icones Volume 1, William Jones, 1783. Image available from:
6.‘Art Historian waiting…’ #22 of 50, 2nd Series. Jeff Gabel, 2004. Image available from:
7.‘Life through the Eyes of East Anglian Artists’, The Day Collection and Museum of East Anglian Life, Stowmarket, Suffolk. Image copyright James Lumbard, 2016

One thought on “Art, Nature, Engagement, and Rural Life

  1. Pingback: Top Ten Most Read Blogs of 2016 | NatSCA

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