Playing with Time

Cave palaeontology collections as vessels of truth and creativity…

Big Beasts Stalk The Mind of Sir William Boyd Dawkins. Two pages from a flip-book showing animated giant deer, steppe bison, spotted hyaena, horse, pages from Sir William’s notebook relating to the excavation of the Hyaena Den at Wookey Hole and a Palaeolithic hand axe unearthed there. (C) Sean Harris.

Beasts of tooth and claw have always stalked the darker corners of my mind. But we could probably all say that couldn’t we? However, a recent creative collaboration – for which Wells and Mendip Museum’s seminal collection of Pleistocene mammal bone provided the focus – presented a new slant on the mind/ cave analogy.

My grandparents, who exerted such a powerful influence on my formation, did their very best to nurture a natural scientist of some shape or form. They would, I think, have been proud of a geologist, ornithologist, zoologist – also perhaps an archaeologist; maybe even an anthropologist. Someone of great standing and integrity, qualities probably manifest in a really solid moustache.

Consequently, growing up, I spent a lot of time in museums, in hides and ranging across fields with a geologist’s hammer; all activities accompanied with a notebook and pencil. However, to the considerable bafflement (and perhaps frustration) of my well-intentioned elders, a compulsive urge to express the images and narratives that formed themselves in my mind’s eye – ironically borne of hours gazing into cases at the minutiae of taxidermied creatures, patinated bones, geological specimens – won out and instead of a scientist they got an artist and animator.

However, having now, over the course of a career, worked with a diverse array of researchers in museums and conservation organisations, I know that I’m on the same spectrum as a great many of them – albeit perched at a slightly different position along it. Whilst our motivations and the languages we use to communicate our discoveries may be different, we’re all explorers of a type. I wish I could have the opportunity to explain that to my grandmother – though maybe she knew it anyway.

Continue reading

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

Continue reading

A Blog from the Up and Coming

In 2016 I graduated with a BSc (Hons) in Zoology from the University of Reading. I picked the degree because I always loved animals and really enjoyed science at school. But studying zoology has given me a whole new appreciation for the natural world and a new interest in palaeontology and natural history collections. During my degree, I had access to the university’s lovely little museum, called the Cole Museum of Zoology. I had many practical lessons based on the Cole’s collections, and even did my final year dissertation on studying their ichthyosaur fossils.

In addition to this, I was lucky enough to gain a lot of work experience there through volunteering and doing summer placements. Initially, I helped with cataloguing the Cole’s seashell collection into a little notebook. But eventually I was assisting with rehousing a huge fossil collection, which involved re-boxing specimens, identifying the material, generating unique accession numbers for them and creating new records for a database. I enjoyed my time at the Cole very much and was sad to say goodbye after graduating and moving back to London.

Some beautiful cone shells, belonging to the Cole Museum of Zoology’s shell collection.

Life after graduation was fairly chilled at first, free from university deadlines and the horrors of exam stress! Eventually I began working in retail while I continued to look for a career in science research or more interestingly… natural history museums. But I was beginning to lose hope as these kinds of opportunities were very competitive and felt very rare. I really started to miss being in the museum environment (and dislike being in retail… sales assistants have feelings too!). Continue reading

NatSCA Digital Digest

Chameleon

Jobs and Traineeships

Norfolk Museums Service is offering six 12-month paid traineeships, including one post in natural history. The closing date for applications is 3 January 2016. See here for details.

Curatorial Assistant, Anthropology Audit: Natural History Museum (NHM), London. Six-month collections-based role. Applications close 7 December 2015.

Documentation Officer (job share): Horniman Museum & Gardens, London. 19 hours/week. Applications close 14 December 2015.

Events and Exhibitions

Introduction to Diptera Families. Oxford University Museum of Natural History. A two-day workshop on the ecology and identification of flies.

Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed. Manchester Museum. An exhibition showing how modern science can help explain the ancient practice of animal mummification. Open now until 17 April 2016.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2015. Natural History Museum, London. As always, this is a stunningly beautiful exhibition, and well worth seeing. If you can’t make it to London, you can also see it on tour at other museums around the UK.

Collected and Possessed. Horniman Museum & Gardens, London. An exhibition by artist Mark Fairnington, inspired by the collections of the Horniman, NHM, and Wellcome Collection. Open now, until 24 January 2016.

Around the Web

A WNPR podcast looking behind the glass of the taxidermy dioramas the the Peabody Museum.

Who’s digitising what? The New York Times guide to online natural science collections.

In pursuit of plants: The Marianne North Gallery at Kew.