When Art Recreates the Workings of Natural History it can Stimulate Curiosity and Emotion

Natural history is one of the branches of science whose methods and traditions are most often referenced by contemporary artists. A flock of the installations that we find in leading galleries echo, reflect, borrow from and parody the ways that natural history works.

Sometimes these artists pick apart the way that natural history is “done” in museums – Joseph Cornell’s mini display cases; Ruth Marshall’s knitted animal pelts; Tessa Farmer’s “fairies” made from real insect carcasses; Polly Morgan’s modern take on taxidermy and Damien Hirst’s various preserved specimens all invite us to consider the ways that museums represent nature, and the role of museum specimens.

Elsewhere artists point to natural history as a part of our human society, performed in the wild, beyond the walls of museums and universities. For example, Natural Selection by Andy and Peter Holden (currently at The Towner Gallery in Eastbourne until 20th May) tells the story of the people obsessed by the illegal practice of collecting bird eggs.

Work in the museum and in the wild are two central pillars of natural history. One artist who shadows the practices of both is the American artist Mark Dion. His exhibition, Theatre of the Natural World, is showing now at the Whitechapel Gallery in London until 13th May. As a natural historian who works in museums and undertakes fieldwork, I am always interested in art that encourages me to step back and reflect on how my profession actually operates.

Sometimes what it shows me is funny, sometimes it’s sad, and sometimes it’s disturbing. Such art can be a highly effective means of communicating just how absurd some aspects of natural history are. Much of Dion’s work highlights the subjective, peculiar and inconsistent ways that taxonomy operates: it is an entirely human construct intended to place order on the impossibly disordered living world.

Mark Dion
The Naturalist’s Study, 2018
Installation view of Mark Dion: Theatre of the Natural World at Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2018
Photo: Jeff Spicer/PA Wire

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Paradise, Problems, Perpetrators, and Positives

The Paradise

Far away in a tropical land, where few of us will ever visit, there lives a plethora of exotic and enigmatic animals that would be at home in a book on Victorian expeditions and grand discoveries. Scaly pangolins, pygmy elephants, and a species of small rhinoceros that is covered in brown fur represent a drop in the ocean of the immense biodiversity living in the beautiful natural habitats of Indonesia and Malaysia. I hope you are conjuring a heart-warming image in your mind of lush green rainforests; perhaps a huge orange cat with black stripes disappearing into the undergrowth as birds and monkeys join forces to belt out a warning chorus, letting everything nearby know of the tiger’s presence.

Now raze the trees, set fire to everything, destroy the animals, and in the ensuing barren wasteland grow acres and acres of plantations. All for an ingredient called palm oil.

The Problems

What is this magical substance that is worth wiping out entire species of plants and animals for? It’s an edible vegetable oil that is in everything from soap and toothpaste, to cookies and chocolate bars. Pick up a consumable in any supermarket and you’ll probably be holding palm oil. The substance is this omnipresent in the western world and yet 85% of the entire world’s supply of palm oil comes from plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia alone. That should give you an idea of how much of these two Southeast Asian countries has been, and continues to be, burnt to the ground in order to produce palm oil. That biodiversity we spoke off before is hanging on by its finger tips in smaller and smaller… and smaller… pockets of forest.

World map showing countries affected by large-scale clearance of natural habitat for producing palm oil as of 2006 (FAO 20076, via Koh and Wilcove, 20087).

Further to the suffering of the natural world, in many areas, indigenous peoples are forced to abandon their forest homes and their traditional ways of life, in order for the land to be purposefully destroyed. Indonesia has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. What happens to these displaced people? Many of them are forced into working on the plantations as slaves. This includes child slavery. I am sure you have heard of Conflict Diamonds? Conflict Palm Oil is just as inhumane.

If you need further persuasion that palm oil is bad news, the carbon pollution produced by palm oil plantations is a MAJOR player in the line-up of human induced villains that are hurtling our climate out of control. Climate change is a normal, natural phenomenon. What isn’t normal is the speed at which it is occurring due to human activity. It is changing so fast that animals and plants can’t keep up, they can’t evolve or adapt fast enough. So they’re choosing option B and going extinct instead.

In 2015, smog produced as a direct result of fires used in palm oil production was so thick in Sumatra, Indonesia, that it caused air pollution levels to spike in neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore. (NASA, 2015).

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Borderless Collections – Starting a Collections Community (R)evolution

by Deborah Paul (iDigBio) and Isla Gladstone (Senior Curator of Natural Sciences, Bristol Culture)

The heroes. Our natural sciences collections, collections staff, the planet and all the players worldwide (thanks Shakespeare).

Some of the heroes’ dilemmas. Need for online access to collection specimen data for research, dwindling habitat, damaged planet resources, one-of-a-kind objects, minimal staff, need for financial support and expertise, and an urgent need to reach and engage a broader audience if we are to succeed in addressing these dilemmas. Some actors know their roles, others don’t even know they are part of the story.

With support from the John Ellerman Foundation for the South West Area Natural Sciences collections (SWANS) project, Bristol City Council’s Culture Team (based at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery), the Natural History Museum (UK), and iDigBio, jointly created two workshops. Both of these events serve as part of a coordinated effort to envision and create a robust UK regional digital natural sciences collections program that supports research, engagement and skills, and connects directly to local, national, and international programs now and in the future. The vision includes plans to repeat the second workshop across the UK.

Materials. All materials and talks can be found on the respective workshop wikis: UK Strategy and SWANS Practical Digitisation.

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When Museums Get it Wrong – Did We Accidentally Accession Someone’s Holiday Booze?

I have a strong suspicion that an object that is now in our collection at the Grant Museum was in fact a souvenir bottle of plum brandy. How could such a thing happen?

The mystery specimen in its original fluid before conservation. Is it in fact a bottle of plum brandy that a researcher bought as a souvenir? (C) UCL Grant Museum of Zoology.

My former colleagues Mark Carnall and Emma-Louise Nicholls first brought this “specimen” to my attention in 2011, when they found it in our wet specimen store: an unmarked bottle of clear brown liquid containing a near-spherical object with a cork stopper in its narrow neck. Mark wrote a blog at the time working through the process of elimination of all the spherical objects that might belong in a zoological collection such as ours. While others had assumed it was a testis, Mark and Emma decided that it was in fact a plum – not zoological at all. Aside from its identity, the other question was: how did a 25mm sphere get in a bottle with a 10mm neck?

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NatSCA Digital Digest – March

What Should I Read?

As part of the International Year of the Reef (that’s this year, in case you hadn’t crossed paths with it yet) the Horniman Museum and Gardens is releasing a series of blogs that showcase and celebrate research taking place around the globe on coral reef conservation. There have been three installments so far, with the latest one here.  FYI- the images in this blog series are STUNNING! The hashtag for Internal Year of the Reef is #IYOR2018.

It’s that wonderful day of the year again when men all over the world realise it’s International Women’s Day and subsequently Google ‘When is International Men’s Day?’. To celebrate the day, the Natural History Museum has published an article- The women watching over London’s natural history collections, to demonstrate the diversity of roles of their wonderful staff, covering 11 fabulous women in conservation, curation, and research.

A new website has been launched in support of museum professionals called Museum Wellness Network; ‘A network for museum professionals to connect over mental health and well being’. As every human on the planet has a state of mental health, anything that aims to improve its quality in others definitely gets my vote. They are also on Twitter should you wish to give them a follow and see what they’re up to.

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Taxidermy Koala – The Language of Natural History

This article has been re-posted from the Grant Museum of Zoology blog, with permission of the author Jack Ashby.

With generic terms like mankind and Homo sapiens (“wise man”), people of all genders are well aware that it is the masculine that has dominated the vocabulary of humanity. Not so in the animal kingdom.

Across UCL Culture we are celebrating the centenary of some women first getting the vote in the UK in a number of different ways. In the run up to International Women’s Day, here on the blog our Specimens of the Week will be exploring themes like women in natural history, female specimens, and – in this case – the language of natural history. This week’s Specimen of the Week is…

Koalas are one of many Australian mammals that are named after a characteristic that only females have. Their scientific name Phascolarctos means “pouched bear”. LDUCZ-Z65. (C) UCL Grant Museum of Zoology

***The Taxidermy Koala***

I find it interesting to think about animals that are named after features that only one sex has. How would you feel if your species was defined by a characteristic that you yourself didn’t possess?* My own passion is the mammals of Australia. Unlike many other groups (for example there are entire groups of insects that can only be identified by studying male genitalia), for those animals which are named for sex-specific features, Australian mammals are almost** universally named after things that only appear in females.

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Meet the Committee – Donna Young

What is your role on the NatSCA committee?

My main role over for the last four years has been organising our annual conferences at York, Bristol, Derby and Cambridge museums.

There’s a lot of work involved in putting the programme together and it’s a great team effort, along with our fantastic treasurer and the staff based at the various venues. I have found it very rewarding to see us expand our audience and develop our programme themes.

I am currently a member of the of the journal editorial board and NatSCA bursaries/grants sub-committee.

Job Title & Institution

Curator of the Herbarium: World Museum, National Museums Liverpool.

Twitter Username

@HerbariumDonna

Donna Young, hard at work on the herbarium. (C) National Museums Liverpool.

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