Unpacking the Unnatural History Museum (Season 1)

Written by Verity Burke, John Pollard Newman Fellow of Climate Change and the Arts, University College Dublin.

Blaschka Models. Image credit: courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland: Natural History.

We’re at a crucial historical moment, in which the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List has announced a catastrophic decline in global biodiversity, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reported on the devastating trajectory of the climate crisis. Museums have an important role to play in communicating the value of nature. Yet nature is, necessarily, mediated in museums, through taxidermy dioramas and skeletal mounts; virtual tours and digital databases; image, text and film. While the natural world has always been mediated in the museum space, what does this mediation mean now for natural history museums and collections, and the natures they present?

These are some of the questions which drive my research into museum representations of the natural world, and was the inspiration behind putting together an event series called ‘The Unnatural History Museum: Mediating Nature in the Sixth Mass Extinction’ (part of the Irish Research Council-funded project ‘Still Lives: Organic and Digital Animals in the Natural History Museum’ at Trinity College Dublin). I was keen to make a space to have these conversations across disciplines and sectors (something which we get surprisingly few opportunities to do, despite often working on similar topics or issues), to allow us to share what we were doing and discuss why. This blog is a short overview of the topics that the first season of the Unnatural History Museum engaged with from September 2022 to April 2023, with some excitement about what arose in the first season, and in anticipation of continuing these conversations in a planned second season.

The events were hosted on Zoom to enable international participation, and took the format of short presentations around a specific theme, followed by a roundtable discussion between the academics and heritage professionals, as well as questions and participation from audience members.

Screenshot from Unnatural History Museum ‘Non-Human Life’ Session. Permissions agreed by depicted participants, image author’s own.)

Our first session was concerned with extinction, with Adam Searle (University of Nottingham) presenting on El Museo del Bucardo’s generation of meaning in an era of both extinctions and the promised possibilities of de-extinctions; Will Tattersdill (University of Glasgow) discussed how museums frequently conclude their dinosaur exhibitions with the extinction event despite the millions of years such creatures existed; Isla Gladstone (Bristol Museum) considered if and why the real animal remains present in taxidermy were important to telling extinction stories; and Dolly Jørgensen (Universitet i Stavanger) discussed animation and play in the context of the seriousness of extinction.

The second discussed the benefits and limits of digital media, with Paolo Viscardi (National Museum of Ireland Natural History) discussing the multiple platforms and technologies available to expand static display spaces; Matthew Brower (University of Toronto) reflecting on the mediation of non-human life in the Digital Animalities exhibitions; Elizabeth Heyne (Museum für Naturkunde) analysing the potentials of digital collections in the Anthropocene; and Marijke Besselink (Naturalis) demonstrating how complex processes such as evolution can be mediated by digital storytelling.

Badger feet. Image courtesy of Jazmine Miles-Long

The third panel focussed on non-human life, where I began by discussing how re-creation taxidermy affects our stories about reanimation, authenticity, and endangerment; Pandora Syperek (Loughborough University) discussed the mediation of gender and genre in the Blaschka models; Jazmine Miles Long (independent taxidermist) considered the intimacy that taxidermy facilitates with death; Martyn Linnie (Trinity College Zoological Museum) argued for the efficacy of story-telling in expanding visitor interest in non-human life; and Nuala Caomhánach (New York University/American Museum of Natural History) historicised and queried the concept of plant blindness through AMNH’s presentation of the botanical world.

The final session took decolonisation as its topic. Subhadra Das (independent researcher) highlighted how a narrow focus on animal biology erases the colonial histories which shaped natural history collections; Catarina Madruga (Museum für Naturkunde) asked how natural it is to find ‘trophies’ in a mammal collection, vitally redefining the notion of a trophy specimen in the process; Deborah Schrijvers (University College Dublin) looked at the use of slow cinema to question natural history display; and Harun Morrison (artist and writer) and Jo Hatton (Horniman Museum) reflected on the Decolonising Natural History residency at the Horniman Museum and the work produced as a result of the commission.

The first season provided a number of insights into commonalities between the approaches which both the heritage and academic sectors are taking to shared environmental topics, including their emotional resonance, the complexity of representing processes or timescales, and the vitality of museum engagement in discourses about topics which concern their own collections. It also allowed me to realise that – rather than fretting that there would be minimal common ground between presentations – allowing time and space for conversations on such complex topics was extremely rewarding, with the dialogue between presenters and audience being both expansive and generous.

I’m hugely grateful to each and every person who presented or chaired at the sessions, to those who asked questions and took the opportunity to enter the discussions, to everyone who shared information about the series, and to the audience members who took the time to be present with challenging topics.

And I hope to see both familiar faces and new ones at the next season of the Unnatural History Museum, which will extend the topics and themes to consider issues such as the museum mediation of climate change, as part of the John Pollard Newman Fellowship of Climate Change and the Arts at University College Dublin. A website is planned to provide information about the new season and to host sessions from season one – but until then, feel free to keep in touch via Twitter (@drverityburke), where I’ll undoubtedly pop series and website information as soon as it’s available.

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